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Paul and Seneca in Dialogue

Ancient Philosophy & Religion

Edited by

George Boys-Stones (University of Durham)

George van Kooten (University of Groningen)

Advisory Board

Gábor Betegh (Cambridge)

Troels Engberg-Pedersen (Copenhagen)
Reinhard Feldmeier (Göttingen)
Jens Halfwassen (Heidelberg)
Matyáš Havrda (Prague)
Philippe Hoffmann (É cole Pratique des Hautes É tudes, Paris)
George Karamanolis (Vienna)
Anders Klostergaard Petersen (Aarhus)
David Konstan (New York University)
Winrich Löhr (Heidelberg)
John Magee (Toronto)
Maren Niehoff (Hebrew University of Jerusalem)
Ilaria Ramelli (Milan)
Gretchen Reydams-Schils (Notre Dame, USA)
Lautaro Roig Lanzillotta (Groningen)
Gregory E. Sterling (Yale)
Ilinca Tanaseanu-Döbler (Göttingen)
Shaul Tor (King’s College London)
Robbert van den Berg (Leiden)
Peter Van Nuffelen (Ghent)

Volume 2

The titles published in this series are listed at brill.com/aphr

Paul and Seneca in Dialogue

Edited by

Joseph R. Dodson
David E. Briones
Cover illustration: The posthumous encounter of the deceased with the philosophers (1950 NAM 90), relief
from the funeral sacrificial table (mensa) in the “House of Proclus” on the Southern slope of the Acropolis
at Athens, excavated in 1955, used by courtesy and permission of the New Acropolis Museum in Athens.
© New Acropolis Museum, Athens.

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ISBN 978-90-04-34136-4 (e-book)

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For our firstborn children,
Mattie Mae Dodson and Micah William Briones,
to whom we hope to bequeath two lasting gifts: roots and wings.


Foreword ix
C. Kavin Rowe

Preface xii
List of Abbreviations xiv
Notes on Contributors xvii

Introduction 1
David E. Briones and Joseph R. Dodson

Seneca and Paul: The First Two Thousand Years 22

Harry M. Hine

Some Observations on Paul and Seneca as Letter Writers 49

E. Randolph Richards

Jesus Christ and The Wise Man: Paul and Seneca on Moral Sages 73
Runar M. Thorsteinsson

Paul and Seneca on Suffering 88

Brian J. Tabb

Benefiting Others and Benefit to Oneself: Seneca and Paul on

“Altruism” 109
John M.G. Barclay

Paul and Seneca on the Self-Gift 127

David E. Briones

“We are Debtors”: Grace and Obligation in Paul and Seneca 150
David A. deSilva

(Dis)correspondence of Paul and Seneca on Slavery 179

Timothy Brookins

Paul and Seneca on Women 208

Pauline Nigh Hogan
viii Contents

Paul and Seneca on the Body 232

Michelle Lee-Barnewall

Paul and Seneca on the Cross: The Metaphor of Crucifixion in Galatians

and De Vita Beata 247
Joseph R. Dodson

Paul in Philippians and Seneca in Epistle 93 on Life after Death and Its
Present Implications 267
Troels Engberg-Pedersen

The Salvation of Creation: Seneca and Paul on the Future of Humanity

and of the Cosmos 285
James P. Ware

Epilogue: The Stoic and the Saint 307

Joshua Richards

Index of Ancient Sources 315

Index of Modern Authors 333
Index of Subjects 339
C. Kavin Rowe

“Compare and contrast” is often given as an assignment to little children. Con-

trary to what we might believe, however, we do not outgrow its importance.
Indeed, thinking similarity/difference has marked human thought as long as
humans have thought. Many of the greatest thinkers we have known – Plato
and Hegel to name only the most obvious two – have worked explicitly with
compare/contrast as a way to move thought forward. Dialogue and dialectic,
negation and negation of negation, this here and that there, were the way
thought moved.
For a couple of centuries now, modern New Testament scholars have
worked assiduously on compare and contrast. They have scoured sources
outside the NT and catalogued words, themes, and images, laying them be-
side their NT counterparts, and published the results as compendia that pur-
portedly provided ways to conceive the relation of nascent Christianity to
its wider world. Such work shed light on the NT texts as documents whose
roots in the Graeco-Roman world were long and deep. With new energy and
ever-widening curiosity, scholars engaged the NT’s extensive cultural “back-
Looking back now, the original scholarly works seem conceptually rather
clunky. Words are not concepts, similarity always entails difference, images
are interpretatively plastic things, direct lines of influence are hard to see, and
so forth. But in their time, Wettstein and all its cousins and derivatives dis-
played remarkable erudition, raised excellent and difficult questions, and set
an intellectual agenda that continues until today.
This present volume stands in this tradition. It does not, of course, aim at
comprehensiveness but instead asks about a more focused instance of sim-
ilarity/difference: St. Paul the Apostle and the Stoic Übermensch Seneca. No
knowledgeable scholar would think Paul and Seneca basically said the same
thing. Neither would any historian believe that two first century contempo-
raries could have nothing whatsoever in common. It is between these two
obviously absurd positions that the interesting questions arise. How do we see
and/or construct similarity/difference? Are some methods better than others?
How much do we ourselves influence the shape of the comparison and its re-
sults? What would Paul and Seneca have made of one another? Dodson and
Briones have collected essays that showcase internationally recognized schol-
ars and new voices to address these and other crucial questions that are now
x Foreword

part of any historically serious discussion of the NT and its original cultural
There are many things readers of this volume could learn. Looking for-
ward to the book, however, I suggest that there are three larger questions that
run through all the essays and would properly repay sustained attention and
(1) What exactly is the project of comparison? Do all the essays work with
similar intellectual underpinnings, so that there is a shared sense of how com-
parison works? Or are there different, perhaps even contradictory or incom-
patible, types of inquiry? Whether the former or the latter, what are the as-
sumptions that ground, justify, and make sense of the way the comparison
works? Though modernity names a time in which comparison has flourished
and in which our confidence in its results has moved from hopeful to assured,
it is by no means clear that we understand the necessary intellectual condi-
tions for its possibility or its significance. What we assume about the reasons
for and the way we practice comparison will disclose much about its real pos-
(2) How should we conceive the relation of early Christianity and (Roman)
Stoicism? In this book, Paul and Seneca serve as a window onto this larger
question. Considerable ink has of late been spilled in effort to describe the
Christian/Stoic relation. Relative to the history of modern critical study, how-
ever, scholarship on the Christians/Stoics is underdeveloped. There are too
many points of interest in this question to name them all, so I will mention
only two of the most important things to consider.
First, both the Stoics and the Christians claimed that their way of know-
ing/being was the one true way to the exclusion of other ways. Taken not
piecemeal but as a whole, they were, to put it rather bluntly, in the business of
all or nothing. This all or nothing requires reflection on how one compares ri-
val schemes, how similarity/difference are discerned between schemes whose
larger claims oppose one another, and what position one compares from – is it
yet another all or nothing? Attempting to compare figures from traditions that
claim to be true in a universal sense is a different sort of thing than comparing
figures/texts within a wider set of already shared agreements.
Second, whatever possible similarities exist between Paul and Seneca on
this or that point, perhaps the most striking thing about them is that their
religio/philosophical schemes produce different and incompatible existential
trajectories. All or nothing in the realm of actual human life means quite prac-
tically that one cannot live both as a Christian and as a Stoic at one and the
same time. Since Leibnitz, thinkers about deep difference have spoken of this
existential exclusivity as non- or in-compossibility. No world exists in which
Foreword xi

the Christian Paul and Stoic Seneca could live in the same life pattern. Paying
attention to the truth of non-compossibility rather than locating all compar-
ative work in the “mind” alone imparts, at the very least, a different level of
importance to the task. What if projects of comparison disclosed differences
on which a decision hung about how to live our lives, as both Paul and Seneca
clearly believed about their own teaching?
(3) What sort of knowledge does this book provide? The field of NT stud-
ies has long accustomed itself to a steady stream of publications that provide
more information. What such information amounts to, however, is less than
clear. Amass some knowledge and amass some more; a little detail here, a little
more there. What’s the point? There is now far too much in print. The justifica-
tion for this volume, then, is something anyone might rightly wonder about. In
my judgment, its importance is tied to a historically dense and particularized
investigation of how we might learn to think with the “other” – and thus to
the hope that cultivating a historical imagination can help us better grapple
with the remarkably common, and remarkably difficult, reality of simultane-
ous similarity and profound difference in the midst of human life.

Scholars have often found value in comparing Pauline concepts with Stoic
thought in general and with Seneca’s writings in particular. This attraction
is unsurprising when one considers some of the striking similarities in their
works. Arguably, no other first-century philosopher’s thoughts resemble Paul’s
as closely as Seneca’s. Nevertheless, apart from the occasional article, broad
comparison, and cross-reference, an in-depth comparison between these writ-
ers has not been done in five decades – since Jan Sevenster’s monograph in
1961. In light of the vast amount of critical research and new perspectives
on both Paul and Seneca since the Sixties, it is high time to place the two
in dialogue. We have therefore assembled an international cast of scholars to
elucidate various theological and philosophical strands in Paul and Seneca’s
writings by placing them in dialogue with one another.
Although we will discuss our methodology further in the Introduction, we
would like to clarify here that our attempt is not to provide a one-sided com-
parison. Rather, these scholars take a specific topic and describe Paul and
Seneca’s understanding of that topic within their larger social, philosophical,
and theological frameworks. It is only then that the contributors try to deter-
mine how Paul would commend and critique Seneca, as well as how Seneca
would commend and critique Paul.
Moreover, the word “dialogue” excludes any approach that simply looks for
interesting parallels between these two thinkers, as if they were in unanimous
agreement. Instead, by drawing out points of convergence and divergence,
these essays highlight and establish the exceptional qualities within each of
their writings. This dialogic method unites the essays within this work, but
the essays themselves range from Paul and Seneca’s perspectives on gift-giving
and suffering to slavery and eschatology. As a result, this project contains
many advances by leading experts who offer much insight into their individ-
ual topics and contribute to the ever-increasing interaction between Paul’s let-
ters and the philosophical discourse of his day. We hope that the volume’s
intended audience of Pauline scholars, classicists, philosophers, and post-
graduate students will be inspired to engage in further dialogic work on these
two renowned figures.
There are several people we would like to thank for making this project
come together. We tremendously appreciate George Boy-Stones, George Van
Kooten, and the people at Brill who were most accommodating and helpful in
getting this book to print. We are also very thankful for the caliber of essays
produced by our contributors and for their kind patience throughout the pub-
Preface xiii

lishing process. Much gratitude goes to Mr. David Edwards and Mr. Andrew
Gilhooley for their attention to detail in the preparation of this manuscript
and to Ms. Karlie Bigham for her work on the indices. We also greatly ap-
preciate our colleagues at Ouachita Baptist University and Reformation Bible
College. Lastly, we, as the editors of this volume, would like to dedicate this
book to our respective firstborn children. David Briones dedicates this to his
son, Micah William, whom he loves immensely. As for me, I dedicate this to
my beautiful daughter, Mattie Mae, in whom I am so very proud. Her interest
in early Christianity and classical literature is proof that the fig does not fall
far from the tree.

Joseph R. Dodson
Wake Forest
The Feast of All Saints,
October 31, 2015
List of Abbreviations

AB Anchor Bible
AGJU Arbeiten zur Geschichte des antiken Judentums und des Urchristentums
ANRW Aufstief und Niedergang der römischen Welt
BBR Bulletin of Biblical Research
BDAG Bauer, Danker, Arndt, and Gingrich. Greek English Lexicon of the New Tes-
tament and other early Christian Literature
BibInt Biblical Interpretation
BNTC Black’s New Testament Commentaries
BWANT Beiträge zur Wissenschaft vom Alten und Neuen Testamet
BZNW Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft
CBQ Catholic Bible Quarterly
CEB Common English Bible
CNT Commentaire du Nouveau Testament
COQG Christian Origins and the Question of God
CQ Classical Quarterly
CSR Christian Scholar’s Review
CTJ Calvin Theological Journal
ECC Eerdmans Critical Commentary
ESV English Standard Version
FS Festschrift
GNT Good News Translation
GW God’s Word Translation
HCSB Holman Christian Standard Bible
HNT Handbuch zum Neuen Testament
HNTC Harper’s New Testament Commentaries
HT History of Religions
HTKNT Herders theologischer Kommentar zum Neuen Testament
HTR Harvard Theological Review
HUT Hermeneutische Untersuchungen zur Theologie
ICC International Critical Commentary
IJCT International Journal of the Classical Tradition
JAC Jahrbuch für Antike und Christentum
JAAR Journal of the American Academy of Religion
JBL Journal of Biblical Literature
JETS Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
JRS Journal of Roman Studies
JSNT Journal for the Study of the New Testament
List of Abbreviations xv

JSOTSup Journal for the Study of the Old Testament: Supplement Series
JTS Journal of Theological Studies
KJV King James Version
LCL Loeb Classical Library
LNTS Library of New Testament Studies
NASB New American Standard Bible
NCB New Clarendon Bible
NCCS New Covenant Commentary Series
NET New English Translation
NICNT New International Commentary on the New Testament
NIGTC New International Greek Testament Commentary
NIV New International Version
NLT New Living Translation
NovT Novum Testamentum
NovTSup Novum Testamentum Supplements
NRSV New Revised Standard Version
NTAbh Neutestamentliche Abhandlungen
NTD Das Neue Testament Deutsch
NTL New Testament Library
NTS New Testament Studies
REA Revue des études anciennes
RelS Religious Studies
RSV Revised Standard Version
SBLDS Society of Biblical Literature Dissertation Series
SBLMS Society of Biblical Literature Monograph Series
SBLWGRW Society of Biblical Literature Writings from the Greco-Roman World
SCHNT Studia ad corpus hellenisticum Novi Testeamenti
SNT Studien zum Neuen Testament
SNTSMS Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series
SNTW Studies of the New Testament and its World
SVF Stoicorum veterum fragmenta. 4 vols.
TAPA Transactions of the American Philological Association
TDNT Theological Dictionary of the New Testament
THKNT Theologischer Handkommentar zum Neuen Testament
TLB The Living Bible
TynBul Tyndale Bulletin
VC Vigiliae christianae
VetChr Vetera Christianorum
WBC Word Biblical Commentary
WUNT Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament
xvi List of Abbreviations

ZECNT Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament

ZNW Zeitschrift für neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde
ZTK Zeitschrift für katholische Theologie
Notes on Contributors

John M.G. Barclay

(Ph.D., University of Cambridge). Lightfoot Professor of Divinity at the Univer-
sity of Durham in Durham, UK.

David E. Briones
(Ph.D., University of Durham). Professor of New Testament at Reformation
Bible College in Sanford, Florida, USA.

Timothy Brookins
(Ph.D., Baylor University). Assistant Professor of Classics at Houston Baptist
University in Houston, Texas, USA.

David A. deSilva
(Ph.D., Emory University). Trustees’ Distinguished Professor of New Testament
and Greek at Ashland Theological Seminary in Ashland, Ohio, USA.

Joseph R. Dodson
(Ph.D., University of Aberdeen). Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Oua-
chita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, USA.

Troels Engberg-Pedersen
(D.Phil. and D.Theol., University of Copenhagen). Full Professor of New Testa-
ment Exegesis at the University of Copenhagen in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Harry M. Hine
(D.Phil., University of Oxford). Emeritus Professor of Classics at the University
of St. Andrews in Scotland, UK.

Pauline Nigh Hogan

(Ph.D., McMaster University). Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at
McMaster in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.

Michelle Lee-Barnewall
(Ph.D., University of Notre Dame). Associate Professor of Biblical and Theo-
logical Studies at Biola University in La Mirada, California, USA.
xviii Notes on Contributors

E. Randolph Richards
(Ph.D., Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary). Professor of Biblical Stud-
ies at Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach, Florida, USA.

Joshua Richards
(Ph.D., University of St. Andrews). Assistant Professor of English at Williams
Baptist College in Walnut Ridge, Arkansas, USA.

C. Kavin Rowe
(Ph.D., Duke University). Professor of New Testament at Duke University Di-
vinity School in Durham, North Carolina, USA.

Brian J. Tabb
(Ph.D., London School of Theology). Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies
and Academic Dean at Bethlehem College and Seminary in Minneapolis, Min-
nesota, USA.

Runar M. Thorsteinsson
(Ph.D., Lunds Universitet). Professor of New Testament at the University of

James P. Ware
(Ph.D., Yale University). Associate Professor of Religion at the University of
Evansville in Evansville, Indiana, USA.
David E. Briones and Joseph R. Dodson

The title of this volume may be a bit misleading. It is not concerned with
proving the historical legitimacy of Paul and Seneca’s fictitious, though en-
tertaining, correspondence.1 Nor does this volume seek to discover literary
dependency between Paul and Seneca. As Runar Thorsteinsson contends, no
serious scholar would ever propose such a thing.2 Nor does it attempt to pro-
vide an exhaustive account of superficial parallels spanning across the Pauline
and Senecan corpora – either words or phrases – in order to be catalogued
into a comparative framework. After all, it is possible for two authors to em-
ploy similar vocabulary but import different meanings into identical words
and phrases. Such an enterprise can easily result in what can be most aptly
described as “parallelomania.”3 At the same time, scholars should avoid the
opposite extreme, parallelophobia, which is usually committed by those who
wrongly assume that similarities between the New Testament and Greco-
Roman literature necessarily means the denial of the uniqueness of Christian-

1 That myth has already been dealt a decisive blow (see Harry Hine’s essay in this vol-
ume). There are some, however, who attempt to argue against the consensus (e.g., Illaria
Ramelli, “L’epistolario apocrifo Seneca-san Paolo: alcune observazioni,” VetChr 34 [1997]:
2 Roman Christianity and Roman Stoicism: A Comparative Study of Ancient Morality (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 2010), 3.
3 Samuel Sandmel, “Parallelomania,” JBL 81 (1962): 1-13. It is important to remember that Sand-
mel is not attempting to end comparative studies but to revive them. Pieter W. van der Horst
(Aelius Aristides and the New Testament [SCHNT 6; Leiden: Brill, 1980], 4) helpfully catego-
rizes six types of parallels under the following three sectors of similarity: (1) Linguistic (stylis-
tic, grammatical, and lexical parallels); (2) Ideological (religious ideas, ethical parallels); and
(3) Social (historical parallels). For another approach to gathering and comparing parallels,
see David Aune, “Why Compare Plutarch and the New Testament? The Form, Function and
Limitations of Greco-Roman Parallel Collections” (paper delivered at the Annual Society of
Biblical Literature Meeting, 2014); cf. also Abraham J. Malherbe, “Hellenistic Moralists and
the New Testament,” in Light from the Gentiles: Hellenistic Philosophy and Early Christianity
(NovTSup 150; ed. Carl R. Holladay et al.; Leiden: Brill, 2013), 675-749 at 679-87.
4 As Niko Huttunen asserts, “If a parallelomaniac exaggerates the similarity, an apologist exag-
gerates the dissimilarity in order to guard the uniqueness of Christianity” (Paul and Epictetus
on Law: A Comparison [LNTS 405; London: T&T Clark], 18). But we may also add that many

© Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2017 | DOI 10.1163/9789004341364 002

2 Briones, Dodson

This compilation of essays falls between these two poles of the comparative
spectrum. It is primarily concerned with creating a dialogue between two dis-
tinguished thinkers who helped shape the world in which we live, the churches
in which we worship, and the societies in which we operate daily. However, a
few matters need to be discussed in order to understand clearly the overall
intent of Paul and Seneca in Dialogue.5
Proper etiquette requires a brief introduction of our invited guests, so we
begin with Paul. Although there is no evidence for the date of his birth, Paul
was most likely born between 5 C.E. and 10 C.E. Tradition places his death by
beheading at the time of Nero’s reign (64-68 C.E.).6 Between his first and last
breath, however, Paul lived a very full life. According to Luke, the apostle was
born in Tarsus and later came to Jerusalem, where he served as a disciple of
Gamaliel, the most prominent rabbi of the time (Acts 5:34; 22:3). Luke also
presents Paul as a citizen of Rome (Acts 22:27-28), who at times supported
himself financially as a leather worker (Acts 18:3; cf. 1 Thess 2:9). Paul was a
self-declared “Pharisee” and “a son of Pharisees” (Phil 3:5-6; Acts 23:6). His ex-
traordinary zeal for the traditions of Judaism caused him to outstrip many of
his peers and to persecute some of Christ’s churches (Gal 1:13-14). After his
“conversion” experience (Gal 1:15; 1 Cor 15:7; cf. Acts 9:1-22),7 Paul was set apart
as an apostle and called to preach the gospel to the Gentiles (1 Cor 15.3-11; Gal
1:11-2:10), which resulted in hardships, floggings, imprisonments, and execu-
tion (2 Cor 11:23-27). As part of his ministry, the apostle penned a number of
epistles. These letters disclose a thorough familiarity with the Greco-Roman
world, whether that be deduced, for example, from the style and form of his
actual letters or the direct citations of Greek poets.8

exaggerate the similarities in order to dismiss the (arguably) unique elements within Chris-
5 For more on a dialogic method of comparing and interpreting texts, see M.M. Bakhtin,
Speech Genres and Other Late Essays (ed. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist; trans. Vern W.
McGee; Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1986), iv-xxiii, 1-9, 159-72.
6 The book of Acts simply leaves Paul in prison (cf. Acts 28).
7 There is an ongoing debate about whether Paul was converted from Judaism to Christian-
ity or whether he was called. For more on this, see R. Barry Matlock, “Does the Road
to Damascus Run through the Letters of Paul,” in Reading Acts Today: Essays in Honour
of Loveday C. A. Alexander (ed. Steve Walton et al.; LNTS 427; London: T&T Clark, 2001),
8 Paul quotes Aratus in Acts 17:28, Menander in 1 Cor 15:33, and Epimenides in Ti-
tus 1:12.
Introduction 3

Seneca, on the other hand, was born in Cordoba, Spain around 4 B.C.E.9 He
belonged to a very accomplished family.10 His father, Seneca the Elder, was ac-
claimed as a leading authority on rhetoric, while his brother was an appointed
Roman proconsul – the very Gallio who refused to adjudicate claims made
against Paul in Corinth (Acts 18:1-7).11 Eventually, Seneca moved to Rome,
embraced Stoic philosophy, and served as a senator. He and Burrus ruled
the empire during the first five years (quinquennium) of Nero’s reign, which
were arguably the finest period for development and progress in Rome’s his-
tory.12 Seneca’s career, however, was riddled with hostility from the emper-
ors. He managed to escape execution at the hands of Caligula only to be ex-
iled by Claudius and finally to be executed by Nero in 65 C.E.13 With calm
and noble resignation, Seneca accepted the sentence to commit suicide.14
Since Nero denied him the right to make a will before his death, Seneca
quipped that the emperor could not forbid him from leaving his friends with
his greatest possession: the pattern of his life (imaginem vitae suae; Tacitus,
Ann. 15.62). Seneca’s reputation lived long after death. For instance, Pliny
hailed him as an extraordinary figure who was in his age unsurpassed in epis-
tles, unequaled in power, and unimpressed by the unimportant things of life
(Nat. 14.51).15 Of course, Seneca was not without detractors and muckrakers.

9 Jerome dates Seneca’s birth to 5 B.C.E., but Pierre Grimal argues that he was born between
2 B.C.E. and 2 C.E. (Sénèque [Paris: Société D’édition, Les Belles Lettres, 1979], 56-58).
10 For works on Seneca’s life and accomplishments, see Miriam Griffin, Seneca: A Philoso-
pher in Politics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976); and Emily Wilson, The Greatest Empire:
A Life of Seneca (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).
11 See Bruce Winter, “Rehabilitating Gallio and His Judgment in Acts 18:14-15,” TynBul 57.2
(2006): 291-308; idem, “Gallio’s Ruling on the Legal Status of Early Christianity (Acts
18:14-15),” TynBul 50.2 (1999): 218-22; and Osvaldo Padilla, The Speeches of Outsiders in
Acts: Poetics, Theology and Historiography (SNTSMS 144; Cambridge: Cambridge Univer-
sity Press, 2008), 144-62.
12 Robin Campbell, Seneca: Letters from a Stoic (London: Penguin Books, 2004), 9; see Aure-
lius Victor, de Caesaribus, 5.ii.
13 Seneca was exiled to Corsica in 41 C.E. and recalled in 49 C.E. For more on Seneca and the
Caesars, see James Romm, Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero (New York: Knopf,
14 Tacitus3 even states that, before Seneca ended his life, the Stoic remarked: “after the
murder of mother and brother, it is [only] natural that [Nero] should add the death of his
guardian and tutor” (Ann. 15.62).
15 See also Dio Cassius who, despite denigrating Seneca elsewhere, describes him as be-
ing “superior in wisdom to all the Romans of his day and to many others as well” (Hist.
rom. 59.10; cf. Moses Hadas, The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca [New York: W.W. Norton and
4 Briones, Dodson

Some denigrated his “flowery” writing style,16 while others accused him of
But Seneca’s achievements were nevertheless impressive. The Stoic was pro-
lific18 and his writings inspiring.19 With a revolutionary style of prose, he dis-
seminated philosophy oriented toward spiritual progress rather than political
policy.20 He even composed tragedies “whose echoes are heard at many of the
greatest moments of western European drama.”21
But this still raises the question: why compare Paul and Seneca? At first
glance, it seems like a very unpromising endeavor. Paul, a Jewish leatherworker
from Tarsus, wrote situational letters in Greek to encourage, correct, and equip
churches in the name of Jesus Christ. Whereas Seneca, a member of the so-
cial elite and tutor of emperor Nero, wrote in Latin and in different genres22
to individuals and wider audiences with the intention of bettering the upper
echelons of society (and therefore society itself) through Stoic philosophy. So,
we have a pagan philosopher on the one side, and a Christian missionary-

Company, 1968], 8-9). Charles W. Super claims that Seneca was “the most distinguished
Roman philosopher,” whose influence as a philosopher was even greater than that of Ci-
cero (Between Heathenism and Christianity [Chicago: Revell Company, 1899], 14).
16 See Hadas, The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca, 15-19; Marcus Wilson, “Seneca’s Epistles to Lu-
cilius: A Revaluation,” in Seneca (ed. John G. Fitch; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008),
59-83; and Michael von Albrecht, “Seneca’s Language and Style,” in Brill’s Companion to
Seneca: Philosopher and Dramatist (ed. Gregor Damschen and Andreas Heil; Leiden: Brill,
2014), 699-744.
17 See De Vita Beata 19 and Ep. 1.4. Cf. Miriam T. Griffin, “Imago Vitae Suae,” in Seneca (ed.
John G. Fitch; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 23-58.
18 For example, he wrote 124 letters to Lucilius, 12 “books” of dialogues, and 9 tragedies.
Although scholars are unsure of the exact date of Seneca’s epistles, most of his published
works seem to have been written during his twilight years (see Campbell, Seneca, 12).
“Scholars have long labored to establish a chronology of the writings but have reached no
unanimity, and the matter is of no great importance, for there seems to be little change
in Seneca’s thought or manner” (Hadas, The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca, 9-10; cf. also 10-16
for a summary of Seneca’s works).
19 See Quintilian’s reference to Seneca stirring up the enthusiasm of young men (Inst.
20 His philosophy was not orientated toward dogma but the practical task of healing human
weaknesses. See John G. Fitch, ed., Seneca (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 5-6;
and Grimal, Sénèque, 10; cf. also Miriam Griffin, “Seneca’s Pedagogic Strategy: Letters and
De Beneficiis,” in Greek and Roman Philosophy 100 BC - 200 AD (ed. Richard Sorabji and
Robert W. Sharples; London: Institute of Classical Studies, 2007), 89-113.
21 Fitch, Seneca, 6. See also Brad Inwood, Reading Seneca (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
2008), 5.
22 E.g., epistolary, consolatory, tragedy.
Introduction 5

pastor on the other, separated by language, social class, literary motives, and
religious/philosophical commitments. This is not even to mention that the
two almost certainly never met nor read each other’s work. And we want to
compare them?
Yes. But why?23 A variety of reasons could be offered, but a couple should
suffice. To begin with, Seneca and Paul were contemporaries who lived in the
Roman Empire during the first century. Their writings focus on similar top-
ics and contain much overlapping material. Most importantly, they function
as representative voices of Christianity and Roman Stoicism, two movements
which share a long and complex relationship.24 Indeed, interest in this rela-
tionship has been revived in recent times, especially in Pauline studies by the
work of Troels Engberg-Pedersen.25 The more specific relationship between
Paul and Seneca came into the limelight among Pauline scholars through the
ground-breaking work of Jan N. Sevenster’s Paul and Seneca (Leiden: Brill,
1961).26 And although another volume dedicated entirely to these prodigious
thinkers has not been produced since, many works have drawn from Seneca
to elucidate Paul’s writings (and vice versa) by noting their similarities and
differences.27 In fact, exactly how scholars use Paul and Seneca’s writings to

23 One might also ask, “Why not instead Paul and Epictetus, or Marcus Aurelius and Paul, or
Paul and Musonius Rufus, for that matter?” Any of those comparisons would undoubtedly
be illuminating. Indeed, some have already been done (see, for example, Huttunen, Paul
and Epictetus on Law; Kavin C. Rowe, One True Life [New Haven: Yale University Press,
24 As N.T. Wright asserts, “If there is convergence or overlap between Paul and the Stoics,
Seneca is one of the important places to start” (Paul and the Faithfulness of God [2 vols.;
COQG; Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2013]), 1:220. On the history of the relationship between
Christianity and Stoicism, as well as Paul and Seneca, see Marcia L. Colish, “Stoicism and
the New Testament: An Essay in Historiography,” in Rise and Decline of the Roman World
(ANRW 26; Berlin: De Gruyter, 1992), 335-79; G.M. Ross, “Seneca’s Philosophical Influence,”
in Seneca (ed. Charles D.N. Costa; London: Routledge, 1974), 116-65; Winfried Trillitzsch,
Seneca im literarischen Urteil der Antike: Darstellung und Sammlung der Zeugnisse (2 vols.;
Amsterdam: A.M. Hakkert, 1971).
25 Troels Engberg-Pedersen, Paul and the Stoics (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2000); idem, Cos-
mology and the Self in the Apostle Paul: The Material Spirit (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 2010).
26 For a significant critique of Sevenster’s volume, see Malherbe, “Hellenistic Moralists and
the New Testament,” 679-87 and 711-13.
27 One must be selective here, but to name a few: Troels Engberg-Pedersen, “Gift-Giving and
Friendship: Seneca and Paul in Romans 1-8 on the Logic of God’s Χάρις and Its Human
Response,” HTR 101 (2008): 15-44; Thorsteinsson, Roman Christianity & Roman Stoicism;
6 Briones, Dodson

understand the apostle and the Stoic better has disclosed a wide range of dif-
fering methodologies.
One can easily detect these different approaches within this single vol-
ume; hence, the beauty of a compilation of essays. The reader will be able
to see that some scholars discover more convergence than divergence between
Seneca and Paul, while others find more divergence than convergence. Even so,
all of our contributors attempt to place Paul and Seneca in dialogue. That is,
they first attempt to understand Seneca and Paul on their own terms, examin-
ing their individual works within their specific social and historical contexts.
The contributors also analyze the texts through the authors’ distinct broader
social-historical, literary, theological, or philosophical frameworks. The con-
tributors, then, seek to exhibit what Heikki Räisänen calls “fair play,” which
is accomplished when “both one’s own tradition and those of others have
[been] understood with empathy.”28 After each individual voice is heard –
ideally, with presuppositions and biases held in check as much as possible
by the text itself – then the authors place Seneca and Paul in dialogue, each
contributor having the license to accomplish this in the way they saw most
Unlike earlier comparative studies, this methodological approach of plac-
ing Paul and Seneca in dialogue gives Seneca the chance to commend and
critique Paul (based on his larger philosophical framework).29 Likewise, Paul
is provided the same opportunity (based on his larger theological framework).
That way, a particular vantage point is afforded to the reader that did not exist
in previous comparative studies,30 especially those which simply highlighted
verbal and conceptual parallels or unfairly used Seneca as mere background

Thomas R. Blanton, “The Benefactor’s Account-book: The Rhetoric of Gift Reciprocation

according to Seneca and Paul,” NTS 59 (2013): 396-414; John M.G. Barclay, Paul and the Gift
(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015); Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God; and Rowe, One
True Life.
28 Heikki Räisänen, Beyond New Testament Theology: A Story and a Programme (2d ed.; Lon-
don: SCM Press, 2000), 158-59.
29 Using the term “philosophical” is not meant to imply that Seneca did not think about the-
ology. After all, theology was subsumed under one of the branches of Stoicism, namely,
physics. See Aldo Setaioli, “Physics III: Theology,” in Brill’s Companion to Seneca, 379-403.
30 This is not to say that this volume is the first to employ this methodology. In fact, many
of our contributors have other works, or depend on other works, that display or resem-
ble this particular approach. To list a few, Troels Engberg-Pedersen (major patterns of
thought; e.g., Paul and the Stoics), John M.G. Barclay (larger philosophical/theological
framework; e.g., “Grace within and beyond Reason: Philo and Paul in Dialogue,” in Paul,
Grace and Freedom: Essays in Honour of John K. Riches [ed. Paul Middleton, Angus Paddi-
Introduction 7

material for Paul. These ancient interlocutors are now able to respond intel-
ligently to one another in the present. By creating a “dialogue,” their writings
come alive. So while this project differs drastically from the fictitious corre-
spondence between Paul and Seneca, it is not far from it. We, too, want Seneca
and Paul to speak to one another rather than past each other. In doing so,
both are appreciated for their erudition, originality, and self-sacrificial labors
on behalf of others.

Summary of Essays

Harry M. Hine (“Seneca and Paul: The First Two Thousand Years”) begins the
series of essays by sketching the histories of Seneca and Paul as well as the tra-
dition of conjectures regarding the relationship between the two figures. Hine
reasons that Paul likely knew of the prominent Roman Stoic and that Seneca
had likely heard of the controversial Christians. With respect to their writings,
Hine states that the background information Paul provides is rich compared
to the scant details Seneca gives about his career. Moreover, whereas Paul ap-
peals to his apostleship and writes with an air of confidence concerning his
theology, Seneca does not claim any particular expertise, avoids appealing to
personal authority, and (without doubting the central tenets of his ethics) fully
expects some of his views to be superseded by future generations.
After his death, Seneca’s reputation declined, but church fathers such as
Tertullian brought him out of obscurity, so much so that the Stoic’s newfound
popularity gave rise to the circulation of fourteen friendship letters between
him and Paul. The authenticity of these letters went unchallenged for the next
millennium and led to Jerome including Seneca in his catalogue of Christian
writers. In the centuries that followed, some scholars desperately presented
arguments to support Seneca’s conversion to Christianity. They appealed to
Jerome’s apparent endorsement of Seneca, the Seneca-Paul correspondence,
his seemingly Christian comments, and the interpretation of his death as a
However, other scholars questioned the authenticity of the vapid letters
with their clumsy Latin style. Once the correspondence was denounced as
spurious by the likes of Erasmus, many scholars began to view Seneca on his
own terms. Still others, such as Fleury, continued the tradition that Seneca

son, and Karen Wenell; London: T&T Clark, 2009]), and N.T. Wright (worldview approach;
e.g., Paul and the Faithfulness of God).
8 Briones, Dodson

was influenced by Paul. Fleury reasoned that even if the Latin letters between
Seneca and Paul were forgeries, one could surmise from the historical evidence
that the two would have met. Whereas modifications of these arguments reap-
peared early in the twentieth century, scholarship generally began to focus on
independent developments in understanding Seneca and Paul. Yet, as a result,
scholars such as Sevenster and Engberg-Pedersen introduced a more nuanced
discussion regarding Paul and Seneca. Even with the historical tendency for
the discussion to be shaped by presuppositions, Hine concludes the perceived
relationship has still led to some constructive thinking regarding “how to imag-
ine the social make-up and social reach of the early church” as well as “how to
account for the evident similarities between the surviving writings of the two

E. Randolph Richards (“Some Observations on Paul and Seneca as Letter Writ-

ers”) examines Paul and Seneca as letter writers. Despite astounding similari-
ties, Richards cautions against glossing over the two writers’ linguistic, ethnic,
economic, and educational differences. While Paul was ethnically Jewish and
socially middle-class with a relatively high educational status, Seneca was a
filthy rich senator whose educational status afforded him the opportunity to
become Nero’s private tutor. Moreover, Paul’s Greek is unsophisticated and
has “a genuine koine quality,” but Seneca’s Latin – while deceptively casual
– is exact, balanced, and bold. Further, while both authors employed secre-
taries, Richards suspects that the educational gap between the two is more
pronounced since, in contrast to Paul, Seneca refused to allow secretarial me-
diation to dilute his rhetorical impact on his epistles. Richards also advises
scholars to consider the variance in editing of their respective letters. Over
against the “extensive editing” in Seneca’s epistles, Paul’s letters “evidence lit-
tle or no editing as a collection.”
Richards points out that even though Seneca’s letters come across as a very
personal correspondence, they were meant to be read more broadly. In con-
trast, Paul’s letters sometimes involved a team, often a co-sender, and were
usually addressed to a community. Nevertheless, he concludes: “Paul’s letters
should be read as more personal than the epistles of Seneca.” Richards also
illustrates a number of epistolary similarities between the two authors but
reckons that the parallels merely reflect the zeitgeist of letter writing in the
first century. Concerning the frequency in which the two wrote, he infers that
Seneca composed around forty letters a year, while Paul penned about one a
year. Richards attributes this to the cost of the letters, to Paul’s constant travel,
and to the greater distance between Paul and his audiences.
Richards then moves on to compare the size of their letters. Whereas the
average length of Seneca’s epistles is 972 words, the average length of Paul’s
Introduction 9

is 2,487. This disparity, he argues, likely has more to do with how long Paul
held on to his letters, giving the apostle time to write more. Seneca, on the
other hand, had more opportunities to dispatch his epistles with letter carri-
ers. Since Paul’s letters were larger than Seneca’s, they were far more expensive,
which, Richards concludes, demonstrates how important Paul considered his
letters: they were an investment in his ministry, not an addendum to it.

Runar M. Thorsteinsson (“Jesus Christ and the Wise Man: Paul and Seneca on
Moral Sages”) compares the traditions of moral sages so prevalent in the an-
cient world. He specifically analyzes (1) how Seneca applies the philosophical
tradition of the moral sage, (2) how Paul may have viewed Jesus Christ as a
moral sage, and then attempts to reconstruct (3) how Paul and Seneca would
have responded to each other’s views.
Thorsteinsson identifies common features of the moral sage in both Seneca
and Paul’s work. For Seneca, many men bear the name “moral sage”: such
as Ulysses, Hercules, Zeno, Chrysippus, and especially Socrates and Cato the
Younger. All of these sages were considered consistent in word and deed. Al-
though they felt the allurement of passions, they never gave into them. They
regarded others and exhibited lives worthy of imitation, especially with re-
spect to enduring suffering. And these moral sages enjoyed a close relationship
and likeness to the divine. Thorsteinsson similarly infers that, for Paul, Jesus
Christ is a moral sage because he is considered divine, sinless, self-sacrificial,
faithful, and worthy of imitation.
After discerning these common features in Seneca and Paul, Thorsteinsson
proceeds to place them in dialogue. The stage for this exchange is Romans
12-15, and what materializes is more commonality than difference on the mat-
ter of the moral sage and its implications for followers. Thorsteinsson notes
several points of overlap, such as Paul and Seneca’s emphases on the role of
the transformed mind in ethics, the virtue of right thinking and behavior, and
the moral characteristics of Jesus Christ and the Stoic sage as patterns to imi-
tate – whether that be their lives or their deaths. He ultimately concludes by
stating that his comparative analysis “shows how close the two were in rela-
tion to their understanding of the importance of the ideal sage for the moral
life of their addressees.” For instance, “precisely as the wise man for Seneca,
for Paul, Jesus Christ was a person to ‘put on’ [cf. Rom. 13:14].”

Brian J. Tabb (“Paul and Seneca on Suffering”) adapts N.T. Wright’s approach
to worldview analysis to compare Paul and Seneca’s perspectives on suffering.
Tabb proposes this analysis as an alternative program to Fitzgerald’s inves-
tigation of Paul’s peristasis catalogues in the Corinthian correspondence in
view of Stoic writings. In line with the foundational questions used to discover
10 Briones, Dodson

a worldview, Tabb examines how suffering relates to their views of humanity’s

purpose, worldview symbols, future expectations as well as people’s funda-
mental problem and final solution. In answering these questions, Tabb argues
that Seneca considers suffering part of the inescapable “core curriculum” nec-
essary for learning moral virtue and for fulfilling one’s God-given vocation.
In comparison, Paul also sees suffering as an ordained and unavoidable part
of life. For the apostle, however, it is a reason for believers to rejoice, since
suffering results from following Christ and proclaiming the gospel. Also, while
both authors hold that sin is the world’s basic problem, Paul – in contrast with
Seneca – considers suffering as the result of sin from which there will be final
relief in the new creation already inaugurated in the Messiah’s resurrection.
Moreover, whereas Seneca admonishes his audience to embrace philosophy
and imitate the likes of Socrates and Cato who demonstrated virtue through
suffering, “Paul heralds the death and resurrection of Jesus as divine solution
to humanity’s plight” and holds up his own example of suffering as a testi-
mony of the gospel. Furthermore, Seneca’s focus for enduring suffering “here
and now” stands in stark contrast to Paul’s perspective on suffering that is
shaped by his eschatological expectations. Regarding their respective symbols,
while Paul drew upon Baptism and the Lord’s Supper in his writings, Seneca
criticized cultic symbols and encouraged his audience to keep images of great
philosophers ever before their mind’s eye.
In conclusion, Tabb infers that the disparity between Paul’s “radically Chris-
tological, missiological, and eschatological” view of suffering and Seneca’s un-
derstanding of suffering as the opportunity for virtue and self-mastery “largely
result from their different conceptions of how deity relates to human beings
and their suffering.” While Seneca’s God marvels at great souls who endure
suffering, Paul’s God sent his own son to suffer on a cross and calls people to
share in Christ’s sufferings.

John M.G. Barclay (“Benefitting Others and Benefit to Oneself: Seneca and
Paul on ‘Altruism’”) brings a popular yet complex question in moral philoso-
phy to the table for Paul and Seneca to discuss: “is it moral to give benefits to
others that also bring benefit to oneself, or are these two, in principle, mutu-
ally exclusive?” Barclay begins by disentangling Paul and Seneca from modern
discourse on the “pure gift” – a form of giving which is marked by radical disin-
terest and excludes any self-interested thought of a return to the giver. Barclay
then argues that Seneca and Paul exemplify a pre-modern form of “altruism,”
with both encouraging generosity and concern for others.
Seneca is not concerned with the modern “self-other antithesis,” either giv-
ing selfishly to oneself or giving in a completely self-negating way to another.
Introduction 11

The “antithesis,” Barclay argues, “is not self-other, but self-virtue.” Either a per-
son gives in a utilitarian, self-interested manner for profit or a person gives
virtuously, being motivated by a spirit (i.e., animus) of benevolence for the
well-being of others. For Seneca, virtuous giving does not require self-negation.
Instead, it seeks to create and sustain friendships of solidarity, reciprocity, and
mutual enhancement, when guided by reason.
One could, at first glance, assume that Paul supports the modern “self-other
antithesis” in his writings, where self-abnegation and unilateral giving seem
to be promoted. But Barclay argues, by primarily examining Philippians, that
two factors in Pauline thought need to be considered. The first is that state-
ments which can be construed as entailing complete self-sacrifice for others,
without any thought of self-concern, are “spoken to everybody about everybody
in the community” (author’s italics). Phil 2:4 is key here. The community (not
the rich or poor only) is encouraged to place the interest of others before or
above their own interests, because “the primary goal is social solidarity and
thus the collective interests of everyone” (author’s italics). The second factor
is that Paul includes God/Christ when speaking about everyone’s interests. All
human relationships are “triangulated by, and incorporated in, the relation of
each party to Christ or God.” This means no single person serves others for
their own isolated interests, or solely serves the individual interests of others.
Each serves the interests of others in obedience to the interests of a common
Lord, Jesus Christ.
In the end, Paul and Seneca equally oppose modern sensitivities on the
“pure gift,” along with its emphasis on self-abnegation. Nevertheless, their per-
spectives subtly diverge when viewed within their distinctive theological and
eschatological frameworks. As Barclay concludes, they have “competing vi-
sions of the cosmos, which ultimately configure life in significantly different

David E. Briones (“Paul and Seneca on the Self-Gift”) compares the notion of
self-giving in Paul and Seneca. He primarily focuses on how the worth of recip-
ients and the spirit of generosity play a decisive role in the act of giving oneself
to another (i.e., the self-gift). Held in comparison are De Benificiis 1.8.1-9.1 and
1 Thessalonians 2:8 and 2 Cor. 8:5, which are analyzed within Paul and Seneca’s
wider social and theological frameworks.
Seneca affirms the widespread, ancient perspective on giving solely to those
who are worthy recipients, and discerning one’s worth is necessary in Seneca’s
construal of gift. He therefore introduces Aeschines, a poor pupil who is un-
able to offer a material gift to his teacher, Socrates, when all of his other
students were presenting gifts to him. Nevertheless, Aeschines discerns his
12 Briones, Dodson

teacher’s worth (i.e., dignitas) and offers the gift of himself, winning the praise
of Socrates over against the material gifts of his other pupils. From this, Seneca
also insists on the necessity of embodying a spirit (animus) of generosity,
which is precisely why Aeschines gains the approval of Socrates. Aeschines
rightly assessed the worth of his distinguished teacher and exhibited a rich an-
imus (“mind,” “soul,” “character”) toward him by overcoming a disadvantaged
social position and furnishing an incalculable self-gift.
Turning to Paul, Briones identifies many points of convergence. Paul gives
the gift of the gospel and “his very self” to the Thessalonians (1 Thess 2:8), while
the Macedonians exhibit a willing animus by contributing to the Jerusalem
collection in the midst of radical poverty, a self-sacrificial act which Paul con-
siders a giving of themselves to the Lord and to the apostles. But when these
acts of self-giving are considered from within Paul and Seneca’s wider theolog-
ical/philosophical frameworks, several points of divergence begin to emerge
related to the basis of one’s worth and the motivation of one’s generosity.

David deSilva (“‘We are Debtors’: Grace and Obligation in Paul and Seneca”)
deals with an ancient (and modern) ethical question concerning the obliga-
tion of gratitude in Paul and Seneca. Was the recipient of a favor or gift ob-
ligated to make a return to the giver if he or she was to receive that gift well
and nobly? What were the implications of accepting a benefit and then not
considering oneself beholden to the giver, to make an appropriate return?
“The gift,” for Seneca, “creates an obligation to respond graciously.” It gives
birth to counter-gifts and relationships of giving and receiving. Once a gift
is accepted, the recipient is under “an absolute moral obligation” to furnish
a counter-gift. Unlike loans, however, gifts are not returned to cancel a debt
owed. “There is no room in Seneca’s thought for a do ut des (‘I give so that
you might give’) strategy; it must always be do quia dedisti (‘I give because you
have given’) or do ut tibi placet (‘I give in order to please you’).” Gifts represent
“the ongoing refreshing” of relationships involving reciprocal acts of kindness
between actors who seek to advance the interests of the other. They publically
praise the benefactor for his/her generosity, because recipients joyfully long
to participate in the social dance of grace, that is, the triple step of giving,
receiving, and returning.
Similarly, Paul affirms the presence of obligation within the bond of friend-
ships in Christ. deSilva demonstrates this by examining Philippians, Philemon,
and Romans, all of which contain the expectations of reciprocity in human
relationships of gift. But deSilva takes the discussion in a soteriological direc-
tion by analyzing the ways in which the obligation of gratitude appears in
divine-human relationships in Paul. From 2 Corinthians 1-7 and Romans 1-8,
Introduction 13

he extrapolates a twofold Pauline perspective on Christian recipients of divine

grace: “God’s favor requires a matching human response of gratitude and re-
ciprocal self-giving . . . on the part of those who embrace God’s generous gift”
(author’s italics). These recipients are not obliged to match God’s gift in Christ.
They are required “to allow God’s gift to have its full effect by allowing the love
of Christ to change one’s own orientation to living.” Believers are therefore
indebted to the Spirit rather than the flesh (Rom 8:14).
Paul and Seneca stand against the do ut des principle of ancient society.
Whereas Seneca takes issue with this principle because it ruins any possi-
bility of creating bonds of mutually-enhancing friendships based on virtue,
Paul’s problem with it is more soteriologically-driven. The do ut des prin-
ciple endorses a “justification by works” mentality, one which attempts to
place God under obligation to a human giver. Conversely, Paul prefers a do
quia dedisti mentality, which necessarily appears in both human-human and
divine-human relationships. Only one major disclaimer is needed to under-
stand Paul correctly, argues deSilva: it is absolutely essential to see a Chris-
tian’s obligatory response toward God as an action subsequent to receiving
grace from God.

Timothy Brookins (“(Dis)correspondence of Paul and Seneca on Slavery”) ex-

amines Paul and Seneca’s views on slavery within the broader context of their
patterns of thought and in light of the sociological theories of Berger and Luck-
man. According to Brookins, Seneca went against the grain of the social reality
of slavery to argue that slaves are people too – capable of virtue and deserv-
ing of benevolence. Rather than advocating for masters liberating their slaves,
however, Seneca explicitly denies his advocacy of this course of action. Rather,
he reconciles his view of human equality and natural hierarchy by relegating
slavery as a merely external circumstance on the one hand and as a univer-
sal experience on the other. Since all people are enslaved to moral disease,
the slaves’ situation affords them the opportunity to seek emancipation from
vice. According to Brookins, Seneca had different levels for defining social re-
lationships – with respect to nature that called for mutual equality, and with
respect to institutionalized order that underscored hierarchies consistent with
Regarding Paul’s view of slaves, Brookins discusses questions that arise from
controversial passages in his letters. For instance, does Paul in Philemon 16 en-
courage Philemon to free his slave or merely to treat him as a brother in Christ?
Or does Paul intend to leave his admonition ambiguous? Moreover, does Paul
in 1 Cor 7:20-22 encourage the slaves to become free if possible or only to make
the most of their slavery? Brookins suspects that although Paul considered
14 Briones, Dodson

slavery a matter of indifference, he still found it to be an un-preferred state.

Seneca, however, intensifies the indifference of slavery more so than Paul. Fur-
ther, whereas Paul concerns himself with these relationships in Christ, Seneca
focuses on them with respect to humanity at large. Brookins goes on to remind
the reader that many of the differences that arise in the comparison do so in
light of Paul and Seneca’s view of time – the blessed new age (breaking in and
drawing near) over against the good life (here and now). Paul’s eschatology
applied a pressure to transform “fictive equality into present social reality,” so
that he stared “more intently in the direction of change” than Seneca did.
Finally, Brookins discusses how the “formative role played by social forces in
the construction of reality” help one understand why the two authors seemed
to accept the institution of slavery. What Berger and Luckman’s theories show
is that since slavery as a justifiable institution was the internalized perspec-
tives in Paul and Seneca’s world, we should expect these embedded social
structures still to be somewhat entrenched in their worldview. Further, “re-
socialization” for Seneca and Paul happens within a dialectic between both
practical and ideal factors. Therefore, Seneca struggled with the tension be-
tween his doctrine and its practice, and Paul “left a great deal open” when it
came to applying the law of love in Christ to some departments of life. Never-
theless, each one “allowed room in his thinking for change, for new syntheses
of human knowledge.” In the end Seneca failed to use his position to make a
difference at the institutional level, while Paul’s position limited him to en-
couraging transformation from within the eschatological community.

Pauline Nigh Hogan (“Paul and Seneca on Women”) seeks to discover what
Seneca and Paul would say to each other regarding women and their roles.
According to Hogan, despite distinctions in audience, purpose, and personal
investment, what the authors have most in common is their admiration of
exceptional women who prove the general rule of their society. Nevertheless,
Hogan points out ways in which both Paul and Seneca still reflect the andro-
centric literature of the period such as Seneca’s employment of common fem-
inine stereotypes in his tragedies and Paul’s framing the discussion of Gentile
acceptance around male circumcision.
Seneca asserts in his essays that women can benefit from studying and can
have just as much of a capacity for virtue as their male counterparts. Over
against the notion that women are weak-minded, Seneca insists that Marcia
and Helvia do not share that frailty. According to Seneca, nature has not dealt
women an inferior hand: they have just as much energy to endure pain and
just as much aptitude to perform noble deeds. In addition to his praise of
Marcia and Helvia, Seneca also celebrates his aunt, who was so brave that
Introduction 15

in the throes of a shipwreck she found a way to swim her husband’s corpse
to the shore. Hogan concludes that although Seneca seemed to accept the
opinion that women generally have inferior minds, he believed that women
with ancient virtue and modern education could achieve noble minds to serve
their families with excellence.
Hogan then turns her attention to Paul’s letters, beginning with the “there
is no longer male nor female” proclamation in Gal 3:28, which seems to dis-
solve the division of male and female roles. While acknowledging the different
interpretations of this phrase, Hogan regards the implications of this verse as
referring not only to a woman’s position before the Lord but as also applying
to social relationships in the church. Hogan moves on to her interpretation
of 1 Corinthians. She suspects that the reason Paul omitted the “no longer
male nor female” line in 1 Cor 12:12-13 is because the apostle seeks to estab-
lish a sense of public propriety due to the church’s abuse of his statement.
Nonetheless, she considers the notion in 1 Corinthian 7 that refers to a hus-
band’s body belonging to his wife as evidence that Paul’s real opinion about
men and women remained unchanged. Furthermore, Romans 16 helps estab-
lish that Paul “respected the intelligence, courage, and leadership capabilities
of certain women whom he was happy to consider co-workers in his mission-
ary endeavour.”
Hogan concludes that Paul and Seneca would have agreed that women
could exhibit bravery and intelligence equal to men – through baptism in
Christ and study of philosophy respectively. According to Hogan, however,
Seneca’s writings suggest that a woman’s family was her chief concern. Hogan
concludes that one can infer from Paul’s undisputed letters that he would have
disagreed with Seneca’s stress on the family as the woman’s primary place and
went further than Seneca by using women in leadership roles in spheres typi-
cally reserved for men.

Michelle Lee-Barnewall (“Paul and Seneca on the Body”) compares the use of
the body metaphor and its ethical implications for the church and society as
corporate bodies. The manner in which Seneca employs the body metaphor is
remarkably similar to Paul’s. For instance, in Epistle 95 Seneca highlights the
unity of god and man. They are “one” (unum). Humanity therefore, by virtue of
their having the same source and the same end, have been created for friend-
ships based on mutual support and justice. The worse crime a member can
commit is to harm another member of the body. It is self-defeating. “The well-
being of the body depends upon the mutual support of the members.” Even
more strikingly, because the body is unified by a divine spirit and by a com-
mon citizenship, members have sympathy and a mutual affection engendered
16 Briones, Dodson

in them by Nature (Ep. 95.52). All of this forms the basis for Seneca’s ethical
model to preserve the common bond of human society.
Like Seneca, Paul uses the body metaphor in 1 Corinthians 12 as a founda-
tional principle for social ethics in chs. 12-14, with the primary goal being the
“common good” of the body. In 1 Cor 12 specifically, Paul not only describes
the functional composition of the body but also its organic unity “in which
the members are so interrelated that they feel each other’s joys and sorrows.”
Because one member’s joy depends on the joy of other members, a self- and
other-oriented sympathy appears, the cause of which is the Spirit. This is cer-
tainly comparable to Seneca.
But even though Paul and Seneca share commonality on several points,
such as the unity of the body as foundational for social ethics and the need
for members to contribute to the common good by placing the corporate good
above one’s own advantage, they nevertheless part ways at significant points.
Paul reverses the honor and status of members in the body, advocates for a
dependence on God’s grace in weakness, and focuses on the new humanity
created in Christ. All of these points would have likely led Seneca to question
whether unity in the body could have been maintained.

Joseph R. Dodson (“Paul and Seneca on the Cross”) examines Seneca’s

metaphor of the cross in De Vita Beata and Paul’s use of it in Galatians where,
in their apologies, the authors depict themselves as having been crucified.
To explain why he fails to live a life worthy of his writings on virtue, Seneca
portrays himself as crucified among the philosophers. For him, the cross rep-
resents sinful passions upon which every person – including the great philoso-
phers before them – have been nailed. The difference is: while Seneca seeks
to be free from his cross, his opponents lounge upon their beams and insult
those who do not. Paul, in comparison, responds to the accusation that he pro-
motes living in sin by declaring that he has been crucified with Christ. Rather
than supporting sin, he and his church have nailed their sinful passions to the
cross. Over against the agitators who promote circumcision while criticizing
those crucified with Christ, Paul proclaims the new creation that has been
inaugurated by the crucifixion of the old world.
In the conclusion, Dodson highlights the remarkable resonances. For in-
stance, both Seneca and Paul refer to the cross in relation to sinful passions
and depict themselves as crucified with others – Plato and the giants of phi-
losophy on the one hand and Christ and fellow believers on the other. Dodson
goes on to show, however, how these parallels underscore the differences in
the authors’ broader understanding of sanctification – such as how Seneca
draws upon the cross to admit his moral defeat in his present situation, while
Introduction 17

Paul does so to announce Christ’s victory over his former plight. Further, while
Seneca considers freedom from sin a faint possibility, Paul reckons that believ-
ers have, through Christ, attained the righteous goal already (in status if not
experience). Finally, whereas Seneca’s pursuit for moral progression is pro-
tological, Paul’s proclamation of it is eschatological. Seneca therefore seeks
freedom from the cross so he may live according to the virtue nature first in-
stilled within humanity. Paul, however, trumpets that the cosmos has been
crucified for the sake of a new creation.

Troels Engberg-Pedersen (“Paul in Philippians and Seneca in Epistle 93 on

Life After Death and Its Present Implications”) begins his essay by laying out
methodological parameters. Following Jonathan Z. Smith, Engberg-Pedersen
affirms the need to deal with a very specific topic for comparison, and follow-
ing Wayne Meeks, it should not be the overall aim of a comparative analysis
to reach a final verdict about similarity or dissimilarity. It should help us “un-
derstand each individual thinker better through the comparison.” With this
methodology firmly established, Enberg-Pedersen considers Paul and Seneca’s
attitude toward death, anticipating differences and similarities to appear. The
specific questions he asks are: “did Paul long for death? And if he did, how
might that view of death inform his understanding of life in the present?”
Posing these questions to Seneca in Epistle 93, Engberg-Pedersen shows how
the philosopher views death as being outside of human control and directly
under the control of the gods. Even so, a present life, cut short by death, can
still be full and long. It all depends on the mind discovering the moral good and
falling under its control. Seneca also makes a connection between this present
life and “a similar (and somewhat better) post mortem existence in heaven,”
though, Engberg-Pedersen admits, “Seneca’s Epistle 93 is not a text that aims to
overcome death. Its main focus, rather, is on the present life here on earth.”
When discussing Paul’s view on the matter, Engberg-Pedersen interacts with
an essay written by John M.G. Barclay on 1 Thessalonians and argues that, al-
though 1 Thess 4:13-18 and 5:1-11 deals with life in the present and life in the
future (after death), the apostle neither directly connects the two nor fleshes
out its present implications. This is very much dissimilar to Seneca’s Epistle 93.
Another distinct dissimilarity arises from Philippians where Paul expresses a
direct longing for death and the final state of eternal life at the parousia of
Christ. This “pilgrimage motif,” as Engberg-Pedersen calls it, “is distinctly to be
found in Paul, but not in Seneca.” Seneca views the after-life as an extension
of the present life, whereas Paul considers this life the means to the ultimate
goal of eternal life through death. Nonetheless, there is also a distinct similar-
ity. According to Enberg-Pedersen, the role of the pneuma in both Paul and
18 Briones, Dodson

Seneca connects the future with the present, a connection he finds implic-
itly in Phil 3:20-21 that presupposes the extensive account in 1 Corinthians 15.
This plays out in other parts of the letter, as well, and affords the Philippian
community an “‘alternative value’ for life in the present world” (author’s ital-
ics). Consequently, the similarity between Paul and Stoicism on this particular
point is so close that Engberg-Pedersen is tempted to think that Paul may have
been assisted by his knowledge of “the (general) Stoic idea,” which Seneca ar-
ticulates in Epistle 93.

James P. Ware (“The Salvation of Creation: Seneca and Paul on the Future
of Humanity and of the Cosmos”) concludes the essays in this volume by re-
viewing Seneca’s understanding of the future to point out a popular misun-
derstanding regarding the contextualization of Paul’s eschatology within its
ancient milieu. To do so, Ware demonstrates how the premise that Seneca
was skeptical regarding the possibility of life after death is a “crucial miscon-
ception.” Rather, Seneca was “fully convinced of the personal, bodily post-
mortem restoration of each individual human being through cosmic recur-
rence.” Although early Christian writers saw this belief as an adumbration
of true Christian doctrine, Ware reckons that contemporary Pauline schol-
ars have ignored this because of their misunderstanding of the nature and
place of Paul’s hope for resurrection and cosmic renewal. For instance, Mar-
tin and Engberg-Pedersen draw the wrong parallel between the eschatological
perspectives of Seneca and Paul. The important point of comparison is not of
the soul’s astral existence but the anticipation of future bodily recurrence. The
capital difference is that Seneca’s conception is cyclical (persons will be re-
embodied in eternal alteration), while Paul’s is linear – there will a “conscious
consummation of each individual’s personal narrative in an imperishable em-
bodied life.”
So also, while Seneca’s expectation of cosmic recreation and renewal of-
fers the most outstanding parallel from Greco-Roman philosophical sources
to Paul’s portrayal of creation’s liberation, his understanding of this recurrence
in an everlasting rhythm stands in contradistinction to the apostle’s apocalyp-
tic and eschatological expectations. For Paul, on that day God will restore the
good world previously spoiled by malevolent spiritual powers, but for Seneca
the next world will still be necessarily flawed with death and decay. Therefore,
in contrast to Paul’s joyous expectations, Seneca’s outlook is merely a reason
to meet death with noble acquiescence. Ware concludes therefore that even
though Seneca shares more in common with Paul than many of his fellow
philosophers on these matters, these important common features stand be-
side a profound difference. With respect to their worldviews of the future: “for
Introduction 19

Seneca, the cup of water will be eternally emptied and refilled; for Paul, the
water will be turned into wine.”


The essays in this volume seek to demonstrate the striking resonances be-
tween Seneca’s writings and Paul’s letters. This is nothing new, of course. Schol-
ars have recognized verbal and conceptual parallels in Paul and Seneca for
two thousand years (Hine). Similarly, our contributors have disclosed simi-
lar patterns of thought between these two influential figures, whether that
be their conceptions of a moral sage (Thorsteinsson), their construal of sin
as the world’s basic problem and portrayal of suffering as being divinely or-
dained (Tabb), or even their comparable activity as letter writers (Richards).
This becomes especially true in the case of gift giving. One can underscore the
parallels between Seneca and Paul’s understanding of the “altruistic” giving of
oneself and one’s benefits to others with the ensuing moral obligation of the
recipient to reciprocate a counter-gift in a virtuous manner (Barclay, Briones,
and deSilva). One can also discern resemblances in how both Paul and Seneca
cut against the grain of their social realities by affirming the human equality
of women and slaves (Hogan and Brookins). Moreover, remarkable parallels
emerge when comparing their use of metaphors for the cross and the body
(Dodson and Lee-Barnewell), not least the attitudes related to the connection
between this present life and the life to come (Engberg-Pedersen) and also the
re-embodiment or resurrection of human beings (Ware).
Nevertheless, our contributors go beyond merely pointing out parallels. In
fact, a common note in their essays is that despite the many points of con-
vergence in Seneca and Paul, there are still plenty of divergences, particularly
when placed within their overall systems of thought and their distinctive the-
ological and eschatological frameworks (Barclay and Briones). For instance,
Seneca’s view of enduring suffering as part of God’s core curriculum for de-
veloping virtue stands in contradistinction to Paul’s Christological rationale
for rejoicing in affliction (Tabb). So also, their radical, ostensibly similar views
regarding slavery diverge when one considers Seneca’s focus on encouraging
individual transformation through philosophy and corporate unity in society
over against Paul’s stress on transformation from within the eschatological
community (Brookins) and his emphasis on concord in the new humanity
created in Christ Jesus (Lee-Barnewall).
Another example of this centers on Paul and Seneca’s understanding of
moral formation. Even though both authors use the portrait of crucifixion in
20 Briones, Dodson

reference to sin, Seneca’s striving to achieve the virtue instilled in people by

nature is contrary to Paul’s proclamation of holiness as a result of the new cre-
ation (Dodson). And despite the similarities concerning their expectations for
creation’s salvation and humanity’s bodily existence in the new age, Seneca’s
worldview of the future leads him to Stoic resignation, while Paul’s leads him
to joyous celebration (Ware). Consequently, many of these worldview differ-
ences stem from Seneca’s focus on “here and now, and one day all over again”
as opposed to Paul’s conviction of the new age as “already, not yet, but soon.”
But one ought not to forget that discovering general similarities between
Paul and Seneca can be illuminating. For example, Brookins argues that both
Paul and Seneca’s writings represent a work in process rather than a fixed body
of thought. Although Paul has more of a sense of certainty regarding his theol-
ogy than Seneca does his philosophy (Hine), both of their works demonstrate
a development of thought. In fact, Brookins’s application of Berger and Luck-
man to Seneca and Paul’s struggle to reconcile the idealistic factors result-
ing from their philosophical/religious conversions to their “preceding nomic
structure of subjective reality” can be applied to other topics of shared interest
(see Brookins’s essay below). Be it on gifts, death, women, moral progression,
and so on, Paul and Seneca sometimes critique ideas and modes of thinking
accepted by their respective traditions, sometimes dismantle them to various
degrees, and sometimes endorse them seemingly tout court. Rarely, however,
does Seneca or Paul give evidence of a clean break between their primary so-
cialization and their “re-socialization”; nor do they exhibit an effortless appli-
cation of every one of their idealistic convictions to everyday practice. So, no
matter their advancements, where Paul and Seneca end often relates to where
they began.
Therefore, when comparing Paul and Seneca, scholars need to take into ac-
count their traditions as third parties that are either implicit or explicit in the
comparison.31 Doing so allows one to recognize to what degree a certain idea
in common with Seneca and Paul is also shared with other philosophical and
Jewish-Christian writings. Does, for instance, Seneca and Paul’s exaltation of
respective moral sages find similar expressions in Epictetus’s Enchiridion or
in Hebrews?32 How seminal is their construal in comparison with their tra-
ditions? For instance, it is beneficial to ask if Seneca merely reflects or goes

31 See Jonathan Z. Smith, Drudgery Divine (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 51,
32 See Joseph R. Dodson, “Ethical Exhortations in the Letter to the Hebrews and the Writings
of Seneca,” in Studies in Hebrews (ed. David Moffitt and Eric Mason; WUNT II; Tübingen:
Mohr Siebeck, forthcoming).
Introduction 21

beyond the normal notions regarding women in Roman Stoicism, and if Paul’s
“neither male nor female” proclamation and employment of women in min-
istry represents early Christianity en bloc? Furthermore, when taking other
works by philosophers and by Christ-followers into account, one may realize
that despite possible differences between the ideas of Seneca and of Paul on
a particular subject, these differences may be ameliorated (at least to some
To give one example, although Seneca seems to stand a far distance away
from Paul with respect to some features of letter writing, the margins be-
come narrower when placed in perspective with other philosophical writings
in the first century. While one line of thought helps scholars recognize the
resonances between Roman Stoicism and Early Christianity on the whole, the
other helps scholars notice Paul and Seneca’s individual perspectives as well
as their intellectual contributions to these traditions.
The overarching goal in identifying points of convergence and divergence is
to illumine both authors through the act of comparison. After all, as Bruce Lin-
coln notes, “meaning is constructed through contrast” and knowledge comes
from “the consideration of data whose differences become instructive and re-
vealing when set against similarities that render them comparable.”34 Adding
to this established methodology, however, the distinctive approach of this vol-
ume is to create a dialogue between two influential thinkers who have helped
shape politics, ethics, social practices, and even theology, both in ancient and
modern times, in the church and the wider world, and, it must be said, in neg-
ative and positive ways. This approach has allowed us to imagine how Seneca
would respond to Paul, and how Paul would respond to Seneca, had they ac-
tually come in contact with one another in the first century. All of the essays
therefore seek to accomplish more than cataloging parallels between Paul and
Seneca. Their comparisons further reveal how Seneca and Paul understand
themselves, the world in which they reside, and their theological/philosophi-
cal frameworks.35 For that, we are grateful to our contributors.

33 See Carl R. Holladay et al., ed., Light from the Gentiles: Hellenistic Philosophy and Early
Christianity. Collected Essays, 1959-2012 by Abraham J. Malherbe (SNT 150/2; Leiden: Brill,
2014), 711.
34 Bruce Lincoln, “Theses on Comparison,” in Comparer en histoire des religions antiques (ed.
Claude Calame and Bruce Lincoln; Paris: Presses Universitaires de Liège, 2012), 99.
35 Holladay, Light from the Gentiles, 711. See also David Frankfurter, “Comparison and the
Study of Religions of Late Antiquity,” in Comparer en histoire des religions antiques (ed.
Claude Calame and Bruce Lincoln; Paris: Presses Universitaires de Liège, 2012), 83-98.
Seneca and Paul: The First Two Thousand Years
Harry M. Hine

1 Introduction: The Protagonists

Lucius Anneus Seneca was born between 4 and 1 B.C.E.,1 lived much of his
life in or near Rome, and died in 65 C.E.2 The exact dates of Paul’s life are
unknown, but the two men’s lives must have overlapped by several decades,
and for a period towards the ends of their lives both of them were living in
or close to Rome. At least one person encountered both of them: the Gallio
before whom Paul appeared in Acts 18:12-17 was Seneca’s elder brother. Since
Seneca was one of the most prominent public figures in Rome during the reign
of Nero (37-68, emperor from 54), we may reasonably assume that Paul had
heard of him. We may also assume that Seneca had heard of Christians, at
least after the Neronian persecution in 64.3 He never mentioned them in his
writings; but then most of them predated the Neronian persecution. Despite
the absence of firm evidence, over the last two thousand years there has been
a variety of conjectures and fictions about an encounter between Seneca and
Paul. The purpose of this paper is to sketch the history of thought on this
relationship. It is written from the standpoint of a classical scholar, and a short
survey like this is inevitably selective and impressionistic, and depends heavily
on the work of others.4

1 See Pierre Grimal, Sénèque (Paris: Société D’édition, Les Belles Lettres, 1979), 56-58.
2 From now on all dates are C.E. unless otherwise stated.
3 The historicity of Tacitus’s account of the Neronian persecution has recently been chal-
lenged: see Brent D. Shaw, “The Myth of the Neronian Persecution,” Journal of Roman Studies
105 (2015): 73-100.
4 On the reception of Seneca’s philosophy, see G.M. Ross, “Seneca’s Philosophical Influence,”
in Seneca (ed. Charles D.N. Costa; London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974), 116-65. James
Ker, The Deaths of Seneca (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), through a focus on the
treatment of Seneca’s death over the centuries, gives a good account of Seneca’s reception
more generally; see also Shadi Bartsch and Alessandro Schiesaro, eds., The Cambridge Com-
panion to Seneca (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 255-317. There are useful
collections of papers in: Raymond Chevallier and Rémy Poignault, eds., Présence de Sénèque
(Collection Caesarodunum 24 bis; Paris: Touzot, 1991); Ivano Dionigi, ed., Seneca nella co-
scienza dell’Europa (Milan: Mondadori, 1999); Antonio P. Martina, ed., Atti del Convegno In-
ternazionale Seneca e i Cristiani, Università Cattolica del S. Cuore – Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Mi-
lano, 12-13-14 ottobre 1999 (Milan: Vita e Pensiero, 2001) = Aevum Antiquum 13 (2000); Michael
von Albrecht, Wort und Wandlung: Senecas Lebenskunst (Leiden: Brill, 2004).

© Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2017 | DOI 10.1163/9789004341364 003

Seneca and Paul: The First Two Thousand Years 23

First, though, something more about the men themselves. Geographically

they were both outsiders to Rome, Paul born in the eastern empire, in Tarsus,
Seneca in the west, in Corduba in Spain. Culturally, though, their distance from
Rome was far from equal. Paul lived within the Jewish and later the Christian
community. Seneca, however, was from a wealthy elite family in Spain; he was
educated from an early age in Rome, and well-placed family connections com-
bined with oratorical and literary talent propelled him to a prominent career
in the capital. By the early years of Nero’s reign he was a close adviser to the
emperor, holding a suffect consulship in 56.5
Both were controversial figures. After his conversion Paul repeatedly en-
countered hostility, including personal attacks on his appearance, eloquence,
or finances, from Jewish, Gentile, and Christian communities, and engaged in
debates within the church on matters of belief and policy. Seneca faced crit-
icism of his “modern” oratorical and literary style: the emperor Gaius report-
edly called his style “mere show” and “sand without lime.”6 He was accused of
hypocrisy, because of the gap between the philosophical values he preached
and the life he lived. In Tacitus’s Annals such criticisms are put in the mouth
of a political enemy of Seneca’s, Suillius, who claims that Seneca indulges
in valueless intellectual pursuits and commits adultery within the imperial
household instead of making a useful contribution to public life; and, despite
his philosophical principles, he has amassed a fortune by unscrupulous means
(Tac. Ann. 13.42; see Cassius Dio, Hist. rom. 61.10 for further accusations against
Both men sometimes lived dangerously. Acts and Paul’s letters mention var-
ious occasions when he was put on trial, imprisoned, or set upon by mobs, and
later tradition remembered that he died a martyr’s death in Rome. The dangers
Seneca encountered were political. In his early years, at his father’s insistence,
he tempered his devotion to an ascetic philosophical lifestyle, because it could
be associated with suspect foreign religions (Ep. 108.22). There is a report –
though some doubt its historicity – that he was almost put to death by the
emperor Gaius.7 After the accession of Claudius in 41 he was exiled on Corsica,

5 On Seneca’s career and philosophy, see the fundamental study of Miriam T. Griffin, Seneca:
a Philosopher in Politics (Oxford: Clarendon, 1976; 2d ed. 1996); there is a recent brief account
by Thomas Habinek, “Imago suae vitae: Seneca’s Life and Career,” in Brill’s Companion to
Seneca, Philosopher and Dramatist (ed. Gregor Damschen and Andreas Heil; Leiden: Brill,
2014), 3-31.
6 Suet. Cal. 53.2: commissiones meras; harenam . . . sine calce. All translations are my own,
unless stated otherwise.
7 Dio, Hist. rom. 59.19; discussion in Griffin, Seneca, 53-57.
24 Hine

accused – whether justly or not is unclear – of adultery with a member of the

imperial family. Recalled in 49, he became tutor to the young Nero, and after
Nero’s accession in 54 he was one of his closest advisers. Later his influence
with Nero declined, and in 65 he was accused – again it is doubtful how justly
– of involvement in a wide-spread plot against the emperor, and ordered by
Nero to commit suicide.8
Both men left a legacy of writings, Paul his letters, Seneca his philosoph-
ical works, the verse tragedies, and the Apocolocyntosis, a satire on the life,
death and deification of the emperor Claudius. Their writings – here the fo-
cus is on Seneca’s philosophy – have obvious similarities.9 Both are concerned
not so much to persuade the reader to adopt certain ideas as to change the
reader’s life – in Seneca’s case to bring the reader under the control of rea-
son, or virtue, or nature, according to Stoic philosophy; in Paul’s case, to bring
the reader under the lordship of the risen Jesus. Neither writes systematic
treatises, but discursive works that can often frustrate attempts to follow the
progress of the argument across a long stretch of writing, or to reconstruct a
coherent position on a topic that is touched upon at different points. There
are many convergences between the two writers’ positions on moral issues,
sometimes on theology too; occasionally there are striking verbal parallels.
But the content of Seneca’s and Paul’s teaching is the main focus of the rest
of this volume, where both convergences and divergences will be discussed.
I shall simply move on to further differences between the men and their writ-
Paul says much more about himself and the people he is writing to than
Seneca ever does. Readers of Paul have to wrestle with the problems caused
by his silence about background information we would like to know, but we
should not forget how much he does say. Seneca gives occasional reminis-
cences about his early family life and his philosophical mentors, and a num-
ber of his letters use some recent experience or encounter as a springboard
for philosophical reflections; but from his own prose writings we would learn
virtually nothing about his success as an orator, poet, or politician. In fact it is
the interiority of Seneca’s writing that often appeals to modern readers. The
writer’s authority, too, is handled very differently. Paul repeatedly refers to his
apostolic calling, and reminds the recipients of his letters about his past in-

8 See Griffin, Seneca, 367-88; Ker, Deaths, 10-11.

9 I shall not have room to discuss Christian interpretations of the Hercules Oetaeus, a tragedy
that most scholars now think is not by Seneca himself. See Ilaria Ramelli, “La Chiesa di Roma
e la cultura pagana: echi cristiani nell’ Hercules Oetaeus?,” Rivista di Storia della Chiesa in
Italia 52 (1998): 11-31.
Seneca and Paul: The First Two Thousand Years 25

volvement with them; and he is normally confident of the correctness of his

own position. Seneca’s authority is more implicit and provisional: any contem-
porary who picked up one of his works to read it would probably know about
his political and literary reputation, but he never appeals to that. Sometimes
he presents himself as responding to a request for guidance from the friend or
relative – always members of the elite – to whom the work is dedicated, imply-
ing that his advice is sought after. He does not explicitly claim any particular
expertise, and he never claims to be a philosopher – for him the philosophus
was a professional teacher of philosophy, someone of lower social status. In
some works he never even mentions the word “philosophy,” which, he remarks
in one place, was widely disliked in Rome (Ep. 5.2). But in other works, espe-
cially his letters to Lucilius, he does present himself as a lifelong devotee of
philosophy, who has made some progress but still needs to make more. He de-
clares himself a Stoic, but also asserts his freedom to disagree with the Stoics if
he thinks fit (e.g., Dial. 8.3.1; Ep. 90; Nat. 7.22.1). This arguably implies that his
readers should feel free to disagree with him; and certainly in the area of nat-
ural philosophy he fully expects his own views to be completely superseded
by scholars of future generations (Nat. 7.25.3-7). At the same time, he does
not evince any doubts about the central tenets of his ethics. With those brief
remarks, let us move on to the story of Seneca and Paul.

2 Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages: The Correspondence Between

Seneca and Paul

By the early second century we find Christ and Christians mentioned in ex-
tant Latin writers (Pliny, Tacitus, Suetonius), but neither Paul nor any other
early Christian figure is ever named in pagan Latin literature. Seneca was im-
mensely influential, and controversial, during his own lifetime and in follow-
ing generation, but then his reputation declined. At the end of the first century
Quintilian acknowledges his strengths, but is frank about his faults, and in the
second century Fronto and Gellius, with their archaizing tastes, have no time
for him.10 After them, the pagan trail goes cold for some time, and it is with

10 On Seneca’s reception in antiquity Winfried Trillitzsch, Seneca im literarischen Urteil der

Antike: Darstellung und Sammlung der Zeugnisse (2 vols.; Amsterdam: Hakkert, 1971), is
fundamental; the second volume contains a collection of the relevant texts. See also Aldo
Setaioli, “Seneca and the Ancient World,” in Bartsch and Schiesaro, Cambridge Compan-
ion, 255-65.
26 Hine

the Latin church fathers that Seneca acquires a new popularity.11 Tertullian
labelled him saepe noster, “often one of us,” probably meaning that his ideas
often coincided with Christian thinking. Lactantius too praised him, and said:
“He could have been a true worshipper of God if anyone had shown him the
way, and he would assuredly have spurned Zeno and his teacher Sotion if he
had found a guide to true wisdom” (Inst. 6.24.14).
Lactantius wrote that in 324. Not long afterwards there occurred an event
without which there would perhaps be no story to tell about Seneca and Paul:
a set of fourteen short Latin letters exchanged between the two men began to
circulate.12 The predominant scholarly view today, despite voices to the con-
trary, is that the letters are pseudepigraphic, but for the next thousand years
their authenticity went unchallenged. One might say that the letters consti-
tute the earliest dialogue between Seneca and Paul, but in truth they are not
much of a dialogue – more an exchange of compliments.13 Some of the letters
are extremely brief, doing no more than oil the wheels of friendship, in the
manner of some of the letters of Symmachus (ca. 340-402).14 But the collec-
tion as a whole tells a story of a developing friendship between the two men.
The first letter describes Seneca’s initial chance encounter with some disciples
of Paul who were reading some of Paul’s letters to churches, and the second

11 His writings were virtually unknown in the Greek-speaking world. For scepticism about
earlier attempts to detect Senecan influence in the Greek fathers, see Ross, “Philosophical
Influence,” 125-26.
12 The most reliable English edition, with translation, is still Claude W. Barlow, ed., Episto-
lae Senecae ad Paulum et Pauli ad Senecam <quae vocantur> (Papers and Monographs of
the American Academy in Rome, 10, 1938); there is an English translation in James K. El-
liott, The Apocryphal New Testament: A Collection of Apocryphal Christian Literature in an
English Translation Based on M.R. James (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 547-54.
The edition of Paul Berry, Correspondence between Paul and Seneca, A.D. 61-65 (Ancient
Near Eastern Texts and Studies 12; Lewiston: Edwin Mellen, 1999), should not be relied
upon: it has a Latin text which is a transcription of one early manuscript, complete with
manuscript errors, and a translation that glosses over those errors. On modern editions
in other languages, see section 5 below.
13 A formulation from Gaston Boissier, “Le Christianisme de Sénèque,” Revue des Deux Mon-
des, year 41, vol. 92 (1871): 40-71 at 43.
14 See Edmond Liénard, “Sur la correspondance apocryphe de Sénèque et de Saint-Paul,”
Revue Belge de Philologie 11 (1932): 5-23; on epistolary features of the letters generally
see Abraham J. Malherbe, “‘Seneca’ on Paul as letter writer,” in The Future of Early Chris-
tianity: Essays in Honor of Helmut Koester (ed. Birger A. Pearson; Minneapolis: Fortress,
1991), 414-21; Alfons Fürst, “Pseudepigraphie und Apostolizität im apokryphen Briefwech-
sel zwischen Seneca und Paulus,” JAC 41 (1998): 77-117 at 88-92.
Seneca and Paul: The First Two Thousand Years 27

letter shows Paul nervously treating their correspondence as secret; by the fi-
nal letter, Paul seems confident that Seneca is very close to believing, and is
happy at the prospect of Seneca taking the Christian message into the impe-
rial palace. A recurrent theme is the importance of Latin style: Seneca more
than once urges Paul to improve his style (he sends him a helpful book), so
that it is a fitting match for the loftiness of his ideas (letters 7, 9, 13; the letters
seem to assume that Paul wrote to the churches in Latin, in which case it is the
style of the early Latin versions that is being criticized).15 On the other hand,
Seneca acknowledges the power and inspiration of Paul’s writing (letter 1), and
reports that Nero too was surprised that an uneducated person could write so
impressively (letter 7); and in the final letter Paul implies that in the end it is
the word of God that, aided by Seneca’s eloquence, will spread the Christian
message in the palace. However, in letter 12, on the persecution of Christians
after the great fire of Rome, Nero is markedly hostile, so Paul’s high hopes seem
to have come to nothing.
Since the nineteenth century there has been much scholarly debate about
the motives of the unknown author of these letters.16 Certainly one can say
that, like some other pseudepigraphic writings of the period, they give a nov-
elistic account – or in this case rather, as it were, an epistolary short story – that
amplifies traditions about the early church. There is no evidence of an earlier
tradition about a friendship between the two men, and Lactantius’s remark,
quoted above, tells against it; but the letters do provide an imagined historical
and biographical context for Tertullian’s sense that Seneca is “often one of us.”
Some have suggested that the letters were meant to counter the charge that the
early church appealed only to the uneducated, or to help recommend Chris-
tianity to pagan readers; but we do not know how highly Seneca was regarded
by cultured pagan readers in the fourth century, and the awkward style of the
letters would not recommend itself to them. It has also been suggested that
the letters were a contribution to contemporary debate about how far Chris-

15 That the author believed Paul wrote in Latin is accepted, for example, by Monica Na-
tali, ed., Anonimo: Epistolario tra Seneca e San Paolo (Milan: Rusconi, 1995), 176. Antonio
Grappone, “Girolamo e l’epistolario tra Seneca e Paolo,” Augustinianum 50 (2010): 119-45,
suggests that the letters could have been produced by someone close to Jerome, even
Jerome himself, to promote the case for a new Latin translation of Paul. But Arnaldo
Momigliano, “Note sulla leggenda del cristianesimo di Seneca,” Rivista Storica Italiana 62
(1950): 325-44, reprinted in Contributo alla storia degli studi classici (Rome: Edizioni di
Storia e Letteratura, 1955), 13-32 at 16, and others, do not think the author was necessarily
unaware that Paul wrote in Greek.
16 Full discussion and bibliography in Fürst, “Pseudepigraphie.”
28 Hine

tian writers should exploit the stylistic resources of pagan rhetoric; though,
again, the poor style undermines any such purpose.
Jerome is the first person to mention the letters, in 392/3, which gives a
terminus ante quem for their appearance. The brief passage was important for
the later story of Seneca and Paul:

Lucius Annaeus Seneca of Corduba, student of Sotion the Stoic and un-
cle of the poet Lucan, lived a very self-controlled life. I would not include
him in my catalogue of saints were I not encouraged by those letters of
Paul to Seneca and of Seneca to Paul, which are read by a great many
people. In them, although he was the teacher of Nero and the most pow-
erful man of that time, he says that he wishes that his status among his
own people were the same as Paul’s among the Christians. Two years be-
fore Peter and Paul were crowned with martyrdom, he was put to death
by Nero. (De viris illustribus, 12)

First, we may note that Jerome believes that the letters show Seneca looking up
to Paul as someone who enjoys an enviable status. Then there has been much
discussion of what exactly Jerome meant when he spoke of including Seneca
in his catalogue of saints. Some have thought that he meant that Seneca was
a Christian saint; others have argued that “saint” here has a broader meaning,
embracing a pagan like Seneca who was sympathetic to Christianity; but log-
ically the phrase need not imply that Jerome counts Seneca as a saint at all,
if the underlying thought is “I would not include (this pagan) in my catalogue
of (Christian) saints.” Also, the description of Seneca’s death is significant, be-
cause it is related chronologically, and perhaps symbolically, to the martyr-
doms of Peter and Paul, and it is presented as an execution by Nero – which
obscures the fact that Seneca committed suicide, albeit at Nero’s command, a
mode of death that was wrong in Christian eyes.17
For the next thousand years no one called in question the authenticity of
these letters. In the early centuries there is meagre evidence of them being
read. Jerome mentions them just the once. So does Augustine (Epist. 153.14),
very likely drawing on Jerome, and the existence of the letters did not lead
him to temper his criticisms of Seneca at Civ. 6.10. There he reflects on the fact

17 Perhaps the earliest Christian criticism of Seneca’s death is in a rather obscure poem of
Honorius Scholasticus (sixth century), Anth. lat. 1.2.666 Riese; Trillitzsch, Seneca, 1.191-3,
2.385-6. On debate about Seneca’s suicide in Christian tradition, see Paolo Mastandrea,
Lettori cristiani di Seneca filosofo (Antichità Classica e Cristiana 28; Brescia: Paideia, 1988),
51-56, 59-77.
Seneca and Paul: The First Two Thousand Years 29

that Seneca never mentioned the Christians (no consideration of the letters
to Paul here, but that could be because they were private correspondence,
not published writings), and he speculates that Seneca did not venture to
pass judgement on the Christians “to avoid either praising them in defiance
of the long-established customs of his country, or criticizing them in defiance
of what was possibly his own inclination” (Civ. 6.11); so Augustine seems to as-
sume that Seneca could have known about the Christians and been favourably
disposed towards them. Sometime during the next few centuries pseudo-Linus
expanded on the biographical material provided by the letters in his elabora-
tion of the earlier Passio Pauli,18 but then we hear nothing until Alcuin (ca.
735-804) produced a text of the letters at the court of Charlemagne;19 and the
earliest surviving manuscripts are from the ninth century. This mirrors the
patchy traces left by the genuine works of Seneca in the early medieval cen-
turies; but after the Carolingian period, and especially from the late eleventh
century onwards, surviving manuscripts of Seneca become more numerous
and include more of his works, until in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries
large single-volume Senecan collections become common. These collections
frequently start with the life of Seneca extracted from Jerome’s De viris il-
lustribus, followed by the Seneca-Paul correspondence (the correspondence
never appears in manuscripts of the canonical letters of Paul).
A number of late-medieval writers knew of the letters and the friendship
between the two men,20 and Seneca’s links with Paul were also depicted visu-
ally in manuscript illuminations: following Jerome’s lead, manuscripts some-
times show Seneca’s death alongside the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul, and
sometimes Nero is portrayed watching Seneca die, suggesting, as Jerome had,
that it was an execution.21 One fifteenth-century illumination appears to show
a haloed Seneca, at his desk, with an angel above, holding a child that repre-

18 Text in Richard A. Lipsius, Acta Apostolorum Apocrypha 1 (Leipzig: Mendelssohn, 1891),

24; Trillitzsch, Seneca, 2.384.
19 Donald Bullough, Alcuin: Achievement and Reputation; Being Part of the Ford Lectures De-
livered in Oxford in Hilary Term 1980 (Leiden: Brill, 2003), 378-79.
20 Leighton D. Reynolds, The Medieval Tradition of Seneca’s Letters (Oxford: Oxford Univer-
sity Press, 1965), 81-9, 112-13, who argues against claims that the very survival of genuine
works of Seneca depended on the popularity of the Seneca-Paul letters.
21 Some examples in Marco Buonocore, ed., Vedere i classici: l’illustrazione libraria dei testi
antichi dall’ età romana al tardo medioevo (Rome: Palombi, 1996), 132-3; Luisa Franchi
dell’Orto, “Sull’ iconografia di Seneca,” in Seneca: mostra bibliografica e iconografica:
Teatro dei Dioscuri, Roma, 19 gennaio - 24 febbraio 1999 (ed. Francesca Niutta and Carmela
Santucci; Rome: Palombi, 1999), 27-41; Ker, Deaths, 189-91.
30 Hine

sents Seneca’s new birth; but that dates from the next stage of our story, to
which we now proceed.22

3 From Humanism to the Eighteenth Century: A Christian Seneca?

During the medieval centuries the story of Seneca and Paul did not change
discernibly as it gradually became more widespread; but in the fourteenth
century, among the earliest humanists, there was a major development. It has
been said that during the late middle ages “[Seneca’s] identity disappeared be-
hind his morality,”23 for among the most commonly copied works attributed to
him were various anthologies and compendia of helpful moral thoughts, not
all of them genuinely Senecan. But now Seneca the man began to reemerge,
as humanist scholars sought out long-forgotten works, read his major works
carefully, and studied the ancient historians’ accounts of his life. The con-
sequences for our story were striking, because in the fourteenth century we
first encounter the idea that Seneca was converted to Christianity through his
friendship with Paul.24 Earlier in the century scholars had briefly suggested
this,25 but detailed arguments are first encountered in the 1330s, in Giovanni
Colonna’s De viris illustribus. He offered three kinds of evidence for Seneca’s
conversion: Jerome’s biographical notice (which he took to mean that Seneca
was a Christian saint); the Seneca-Paul correspondence; and a series of quo-
tations from Seneca’s works that he believed clearly contained Christian doc-
trine (for instance, he, like numerous later writers, saw the Trinity in Dial.
12.8.3: “. . . the maker of the universe, whether he is the god who is in con-
trol of everything, or incorporeal reason, maker of great works, or a divine

22 See dell’Orto, “Sull’ iconografia,” 31.

23 Reynolds, Medieval Tradition, 115.
24 In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries it was regularly stated that medieval
writers believed in Seneca’s conversion, but Momigliano, “Note,” showed that this was
not true.
25 Rolando da Piazzola (died 1325) and Albertino Mussato (1261-1329): see Agostino Sottili,
“Albertino Mussato, Erasmo, l’epistolario di Seneca con San Paolo,” in Nova de veteribus:
Mittel- und neulateinische Studien für Paul Gerhard Schmidt (ed. Andreas Bihrer and Elisa-
beth Stein; Munich: Saur, 2004), 647-78, especially 667-78; Carla Maria Monti, “La fortuna
di Seneca nell’umanesimo italiano,” in La obra de Séneca y su pervivencia. Cinco estudios
(ed. Julian Solana Pujalte; Ciclos de Filología Clásica 5; Cordoba: Universidad de Córdoba,
2008), 107-32.
Seneca and Paul: The First Two Thousand Years 31

spirit, . . . ”).26 About fifty years later, in 1373, Boccaccio reinforced the story of
Seneca’s conversion with a new piece of evidence not available to Colonna.
The later books of Tacitus’s Annals had recently been rediscovered, and they
contained a dramatic account of Seneca committing suicide in his bath. Boc-
caccio drew attention to the detail that, as he was dying, Seneca sprinkled
water over his slaves, declaring that he was pouring a libation to Jupiter the
Liberator. This, said Boccaccio, was a covert way of saying he was making a
libation to Christ the Liberator – a sort of deathbed baptism.27
However, the view that Seneca was converted never won universal accep-
tance. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries a series of humanist
scholars wrote about Seneca’s life: some shared the view of Colonna and Boc-
caccio, but others were firmly of the view that he remained a pagan, and oth-
ers kept an open mind.28 One major objection to viewing Seneca as a Christian
was that he committed suicide. This was not a new objection: in the twelfth
century Walter of St Victor (d. ca. 1180) regarded his suicide as an un-Christian
revelling in death. But for others, following Jerome’s lead, Nero’s agency made
the death an execution; sometimes the link with the conspiracy against Nero
was played down, and his death was even seen as a punishment for his friend-
ship with Paul. Seneca’s name was sometimes thought to be derived from se
necans (“killing himself”), a pointer to the manner of his death; but the ety-
mology could also be given a spiritualizing Christian interpretation, as dying
to self (so Domenico de’Peccioli, in the late fourteenth century, quoting Matt.
16:24 and Gal. 5:24).29
For the humanists, though, there were other, more intractable questions
about Seneca. They had inherited from the Middle Ages what has been dubbed
a “single super-Seneca,”30 for the Pauline letters were not the only alien bag-
gage that Seneca had brought with him: the rhetorical works of his father,
also called Lucius Annaeus Seneca (ca. 50 B.C.E.-ca. 40 C.E.), the philosoph-
ical works and plays of the son, and a cluster of shorter works attributed to

26 W. Braxton Ross, Jr., “Giovanni Colonna, Historian at Avignon,” Speculum 45 (1970): 533-63;
the passage of Dial. is at 557.
27 Giovanni Boccaccio, Expositions on Dante’s Comedy (trans. Michael Papio; Toronto: Uni-
versity of Toronto Press, 2009), 231-35.
28 Letizia A. Panizza, “Biography in Italy from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance: Seneca,
Pagan or Christian?,” Nouvelles de la République des Lettres (1984.2): 47-98; Monti, “La
29 Ker, Deaths, 191-93, 200.
30 Stephen Hinds, “Petrarch, Cicero, Virgil: Virtual Community in Familiares 24.4,” Materiali
e Discussioni 52 (2004): 157-75 at 162.
32 Hine

him, were all transmitted under a single name. Problems over Senecan iden-
tity had surfaced in late antiquity, when Sidonius Apollinaris (ca. 430-after 475)
and other writers, among them very likely the author of the Seneca-Paul cor-
respondence, distinguished between one Seneca who had written the verse
tragedies, and another who had written all the prose works, both the father’s
and the son’s.31 Already in the fourteenth century humanist readers suspected
that something was amiss, but it took some while to sort out the confusion,
and it was not until the late sixteenth century that printed editions distin-
guished correctly between the prose works of the father and of the son.32 As
for the plays, after much debate about which, if any, of the plays were by the
philosophical writer, it was again in the late sixteenth century that Martin Del-
rio (1551-1608) argued decisively that all the plays except the Octavia were by
the writer of the philosophical works.33
Amid the struggles to sort out the Senecas, the Pauline correspondence had
a relatively insignificant place. Humanist scholars were finely attuned to classi-
cal Latin style, and it was not hard for them to see that, stylistically, the letters
were vastly inferior to Seneca’s other prose works, and that they contained
no trace of Seneca’s philosophy. Doubts about their authenticity were voiced
in the fifteenth century, but in the early sixteenth century authenticity was
still supported by Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples (ca. 1455-1536), who included the
Seneca-Paul letters in his commentary on Philemon, because he thought they
and Philemon were personal letters (familiares), as opposed to the other let-
ters which were general (catholicae). D’Étaples was well aware of the appalling
style of the letters, suggesting rather desperately that Seneca had deliberately
written in bad Latin so that if the letters fell into the wrong hands he could
disown authorship.34 The first to argue in print that the correspondence was
spurious was Erasmus. In his 1515 edition of Seneca he merely asserted their

31 Laura Bocciolini Palagi, “Genesi e sviluppo della questione dei due Seneca nella tarda
latinità,” Studi Italiani di Filogia Classica 50 (1978): 215-31; Epistolario apocrifo di Seneca e
San Paolo (Florence: Nardini, 1985), 11-15.
32 Guido Martellotti, “La questione dei due Seneca da Petrarca a Benvenuto,” Italia Medioe-
vale e Umanistica 15 (1972): 150-169; Bocciolini Palagi, “Genesi,” 231.
33 Roland Mayer, “Personata Stoa: Neostoicism and Senecan Tragedy,” Journal of the Warburg
and Courtauld Institutes 57 (1994): 151-74.
34 Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples (Jacobus Faber Stapulensis), Epistole diui Pauli apostoli: cum
commentariis . . . (Paris: in edibus Francisci Regnault et Joannis de la Porte, 1517), book 18;
his argument about the letters is reprinted in Eugene F. Rice, Jr., The Prefatory Epistles of
Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples and Related Texts (New York: Columbia University Press, 1972),
Seneca and Paul: The First Two Thousand Years 33

spuriousness, but in his later 1529 edition he added a letter to the reader with
detailed arguments. On style, he tartly remarked that Seneca’s muleteer or
stable-boy (mulio vel agaso) could have written better Latin (probably a tacit
riposte to d’Étaples), and on content, he pointed out that there was no sugges-
tion of the intellectual and literary powers of the real Seneca or the real Paul, or
of the boldness of the Paul of scripture. He also poured scorn on the idea that
Seneca had been converted, dismissing Boccaccio’s argument with the obser-
vation that even on his deathbed Seneca failed to utter the name of Christ.35
For centuries after Erasmus, few in the scholarly community claimed that the
letters were authentic; though in 1566 Sisto da Siena (1520-69) repeated (al-
most verbatim) d’Étaples’ arguments in defence of authenticity,36 and also in
the sixteenth century there appeared a chronicle attributed to Flavius Dex-
ter, a contemporary of Jerome, which recorded that Seneca corresponded with
Paul, died a secret Christian, and was believed to have been Paul’s disciple.
This was in fact a forgery by the Spanish Jesuit Jerónimo Román de la Higuera
During the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries Seneca reached, and passed,
the height of his popularity in Europe, but we need to pass through this pe-
riod swiftly, because Paul was confined to the margins. The demotion of the
Seneca-Paul correspondence meant that Seneca was no longer viewed exclu-
sively through the Christian lens of those letters, and this opened the way for
different perspectives on Seneca, and different controversies. In an age when
Latin was the main language of scholarly discourse, Seneca was drawn into
the style-wars between those who favoured Cicero, with his long, rhetorically-
structured sentences, and those who favoured the terser epigrammatic style of
Seneca. Seneca’s tragedies were staged, were imitated in Latin and in vernac-
ular languages, and entered the bloodstream of much European drama. His
political career generated controversy, which was sharpened with the redis-
covery, and first publication in Paris in 1548, of the Roman histories of Cassius
Dio, with their notably hostile presentation of Seneca.

35 Erasmus’s letter is reprinted in P.S. Allen and H.M. Allen, Opus Epistolarum Des. Erasmi
Roterodami 82 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1934), 40-1; Trillitzsch, Seneca, 2.439-41. See also
Letizia A. Panizza, “Erasmus’ 1515 and 1529 editions of Seneca, and Gasparino Barzizza,”
Classical and Modern Literature 7 (1987): 319-32.
36 Sisto da Siena (Sixtus Senensis), Bibliotheca sancta . . . ex præcipuis Catholicae Ecclesiae
auctoribus collecta (Venice: apud Franciscum Franciscium, 1566, and reprints); the letters
are discussed and printed in book 2.
37 Momigliano, “Note,” 26. Text of the chronicle in PL 31.9-636; on Seneca see cols. 189-90,
34 Hine

At the same time, many readers continued to be drawn to him, and to Sto-
icism generally, as a guide to how to live. Seneca was no longer the only Stoic
writer available:38 Epictetus was first published in Venice in 1535 (the briefer
Enchiridion had already been printed), Marcus Aurelius in 1558 in Zurich, and
some readers preferred them. Even without the Seneca-Paul letters, and de-
spite Erasmus’s insistence on the differences between Seneca’s philosophy and
Christianity, the question of the relationship of Seneca – and Epictetus and
Marcus – to Christianity remained very much a live one. The neo-Stoics, cen-
tred round Justus Lipsius (1547-1606), tried to create a version of Stoicism that
was compatible with Christianity, whereas Pascal (1623-1662) and others in-
sisted on their ultimate incompatibility, particularly on the topics of suicide
and the self-sufficiency of the sage.39 Seneca also became a popular subject
in historical painting from Rubens onwards, and portraits of the dying Seneca
sometimes echoed those of the dying Christ or Christian martyrs (a reversal
of what happened in the early Christian centuries, when Seneca’s own death,
and his accounts of the deaths of others, fed into Christian martyrological nar-
Paul generally remained on the margins in the sixteenth to eighteenth
centuries, but occasionally put in an appearance. In 1624 the Jesuit Nicolas
Caussin (1583-1651), in an account of the lives of Seneca and Paul in La Cour
sainte, thought it probable that Seneca was present at Paul’s trial and became
a Christian at the end of his life.41 In 1643/4 the French tragedian Tristan L’Her-

38 Some of the interlocutors in Cicero’s philosophical dialogues – which were already avail-
able – give an exposition of Stoic doctrines, but they do not present Stoicism as a guide
to life with the personal fervour of the imperial Stoic writers.
39 For recent surveys of this period, see Roland Mayer, “Seneca Redivivus: Seneca in the Me-
dieval and Renaissance World” and Francesco Citti, “Seneca and the Moderns,” in Bartsch
and Schiesaro, Cambridge Companion, 277-88 and 303-17, respectively.
40 On portraits of Seneca, see Citti, “Seneca,” 311-5; John Cunnally, “Nero, Seneca, and the
Medallist of the Roman Emperors,” Art Bulletin 68 (1986): 314-7; Paul Zanker, “I ritratti di
Seneca,” in Seneca e il suo tempo. Atti del Convegno internazionale di Roma-Cassino 11-14
novembre 1998 (ed. Piergiorgio Parroni; Rome: Salerno, 2000), 47-58 at 48-50; Thomas
Noll, “‘Der sterbende Seneca’ des Peter Paul Rubens. Kunsttheoretisches und weltan-
schauliches Programmbild,” Münchner Jahrbuch der bildenden Kunst 52 (2001): 89-157.
On Seneca’s influence on early martyrologies, see Ker, Deaths, 184.
41 Nicolas Caussin, La Cour sainte (Paris: Chappelet, 1624), part 5; the work was often
reprinted, as was an English translation. Ker, Deaths, 222, is wrong to say that Pierre-
Antoine Mascaron (died 1647), La Mort et les dernières paroles de Sénèque (Paris: Camusat,
1637, and later editions), makes Seneca a Christian. In this work, a long, rhetorical imag-
ining of the words spoken by Seneca, and his wife Paulina, at Seneca’s death, Seneca is a
pagan who comes very close to Christianity.
Seneca and Paul: The First Two Thousand Years 35

mite, real name François L’Hermite (1601-1655), wrote La Mort de Sénèque,

which in the outlines of its plot follows Tacitus’s narrative of the Pisonian con-
spiracy and Seneca’s death, but in it Seneca refers to a meeting with a “vieux
Cilicien” (“old Cilician”; i.e., Paul), and a messenger reports that on his death-
bed Seneca invoked the “Dieu de l’homme de Tharse, où ie mets mon espoir”
(“God of the man of Tarsus, in whom I place my hope”).42 In the eighteenth
century, a Jesuit drama of 1721 intertwined the deaths of Peter and Paul with
those of Lucan, Seneca and Burrus, all on the orders of Nero, who got his just
deserts at the end when he himself committed suicide while Galba, the next
emperor, invaded Rome.43
But by the eighteenth century and the start of the nineteenth Seneca’s pop-
ularity had become decidedly more patchy. There were vehement critics, for
example Julien Offray de La Mettrie, who wrote an Anti-Sénèque (1750), and
strong supporters, including Diderot.44 By the nineteenth century his pop-
ularity had reached a low point, particularly in the English-speaking world,
nowhere more evident than in the scathing invective launched against him by
Lord Macaulay (1800-1859) in the course of his essay on Francis Bacon, first
published in 1837, where one hears echoes of Tacitus’s Suillius and Cassius

It is very reluctantly that Seneca can be brought to confess that any

philosopher had ever paid the smallest attention to any thing that could
possibly promote what vulgar people would consider as the well-being of
mankind. . . . No, to be sure. The business of a philosopher was to declaim
in praise of poverty with two millions sterling out at usury – to meditate
epigrammatic conceits about the evils of luxury, in gardens which moved
the envy of sovereigns – to rant about liberty, while fawning on the inso-
lent and pampered freedmen of a tyrant – to celebrate the divine beauty
of virtue with the same pen which had just before written a defence of
the murder of a mother by a son.45

42 Tristan, La Mort de Sénèque: tragédie (ed. Jacques Madeleine; Paris: Hachette, 1919); quo-
tations from 55, 132.
43 Elida Maria Szarota, Das Jesuitendrama im deutschen Sprachgebiet: Eine Periochen-Edition
(4 vols, Munich: Fink, 1979-87), 2.1.1289-96; for other Christianized Senecas in drama, see
Citti, “Seneca,” 312-15.
44 Jürgen von Stackelberg, Senecas Tod und andere Rezeptionsfolgen in den romanischen Lit-
eraturen der frühen Neuzeit (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1992), 3-17.
45 The Life and Writings of Francis Bacon, Lord Chancellor of England [by Thomas B.
Macaulay]: from the Edinburgh Review (Edinburgh, 1837), 66.
36 Hine

4 Nineteenth Century: Seneca, Paul, and Historical Criticism

Meanwhile in post-revolutionary France, perhaps as part of the reaction

against the attempted dechristianization of France,46 a more positive view of
Seneca, and the belief that he had known and been influenced by Paul and
his writings, had not died out. Among others, Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821),
in his posthumously-published Soirées de St. Pétersbourg, dialogues on theod-
icy, argued for that belief, though he denied that Seneca had been converted,
or that the Seneca-Paul correspondence was genuine.47 Then in 1853 Amédée
Fleury published a long, two-volume study in which – while accepting that the
Seneca-Paul letters were spurious – he argued that Seneca must have encoun-
tered Paul in Rome and helped him at his trial before the emperor in Rome,
and that he was deeply influenced by Paul’s teaching, even though he was
never fully converted to Christianity.48 Fleury used some of the new scholarly
tools being developed in the study of both biblical and classical literature, and
put forward three main kinds of evidence: the tradition, which he argued went
back to the early church fathers, of a friendship between Seneca and Paul; the
close similarities between Seneca’s writings and Christian doctrine, which he
thought could only be explained by direct contact with Paul; and the histori-
cal evidence that we have about the early church, which makes it plausible to
conclude that Seneca would have encountered Paul.
This last category of evidence merits brief attention. At the start of this
paper I gave a rather jejune account of the ancient evidence that might
be used to link Seneca and Paul, but Fleury, and others before and after
him, argued from a variety of other evidence that the two men are likely
to have encountered each other. The principal arguments (not all used by
Fleury, and most of them still sometimes used today), may be briefly sum-
marized. Gallio was Seneca’s brother, so, it is argued, was it not likely that

46 So Joël Schmidt, L’Apôtre et le philosophe: Saint Paul et Sénèque, une amitié spirituelle
(Paris: Albin Michel, 2000), 158-59. Others suggest a link with Romanticism: see Laura
Bocciolini Palagi, Il carteggio apocrifo di Seneca e san Paolo: introduzione, testo, commento
(Accademia Toscana di Scienze e Lettere La Colombaria, Studi 46; Florence: Olschki,
1978), 29; Epistolario, 30-1; but in general Seneca had little appeal for the Romantics.
47 Joseph de Maistre, Les Soirées de St. Pétersbourg, où Entretiens sur le gouvernement tem-
porel de la providence; suivies d’un Traité sur les sacrifices (Paris: Librairie Grecque, Latine
et Française, 1821), 2.178-201.
48 Amédée Fleury, Saint Paul et Sénèque. Recherches sur les rapports du philosophe avec
l’Apôtre et sur l’infiltration du Christianisme naissant à travers le paganisme (2 vols.; Paris:
Ladrange, 1853).
Seneca and Paul: The First Two Thousand Years 37

he told Seneca about Paul and his trial? Acts 28:16 says that Paul lived in
Rome with a soldier guarding him, and some later manuscripts add that Paul
and the other prisoners passed through the hands of the commander, who
placed Paul under military guard; even without the longer form of the verse
we might assume that the commander was involved in the decision about
Paul’s treatment, and (on the assumption Paul came to Rome no later than
62) he was none other than Burrus, commander of the Praetorian Guard and
close political ally of Seneca: so was not Burrus likely to have told Seneca
about this interesting prisoner? The final verses of Acts (28:30-31) leave the
reader with Paul spending two years in Rome, welcoming all who came to
him; so, it is argued, would not Seneca have been welcome, and was Paul
not likely to have sought out such an eminent philosophical figure, just as
he addressed the philosophers in Athens? Paul in Phil. 4:22 sends greetings
from the saints in the household of Caesar; was Seneca not a prominent
figure in Nero’s palace? Other figures of the Neronian period are brought
into the argument: Pomponia Graecina, from an elite family, was accused of
“foreign superstition” in 57 (Tac. Ann. 13.32); is it not likely that she was a
Christian, which shows that Christianity had reached the Roman elite? John
Chrysostom (Oppugn., PG 47.323) mentions an unnamed concubine of Nero’s
who became a Christian, and she has often been identified with Acte, an
early love of Nero’s who, on one account, had been introduced to him by
Seneca.49 And if the empress Poppaea was a supporter of the Jews (Jose-
phus A.J. 20.195, Vita 16), why could not Seneca have been a supporter of
Paul? Finally, some argue that Seneca is a strong candidate for being the
Theophilus of Luke-Acts (which obviously requires an early dating of the
Of course, many slim possibilities do not add up to a high probability. But,
to return to Fleury, there was a lengthy response from Charles Aubertin in
1857.51 He showed the flimsiness of many of Fleury’s historical speculations

49 Tac. Ann. 13.12, 46; 14.2 (citing the lost historian Cluvius Rufus on Seneca’s intervention).
The Christianity of Acte was argued by Arthur Loth, “Acté, sa conversion au Christian-
isme,” Revue des Questions Historiques 17 (1875): 58-113, and by others before and since.
50 For instance, Johannes Kreyher, L. Annaeus Seneca und seine Beziehungen zum Urchris-
tentum (Berlin: Gaertner, 1887), 198, thought Theophilus was most likely Seneca; Eleu-
terio Elorduy, “Séneca y el cristianismo,” in Actas del Congreso Internacional de Filosofía
en conmemoración de Séneca, en el XIX centenario de su muerte. Ponencias y conferencias
para las sesiones plenarias, 1 (Madrid: Presidencia del Consejo Ejecutivo del Congreso
Internacional de Filosofía, 1965), 179-206 at 183-84, thought he was either Seneca or Nero.
51 Charles Aubertin, Étude critique sur les rapports supposés entre Sénèque et S. Paul
(Paris: Didier, 1857). There was another early critique of Fleury by Ferdinand Christian
38 Hine

(e.g., Acts says that Gallio did not let Paul speak, and displayed little inter-
est in the case, so he is not likely to have wanted to tell Seneca about it; the
members of the household of Caesar whom Paul refers to would have been
slaves and ex-slaves; and so on); he argued that the tradition of a Christian-
ized Seneca was not nearly as clear as Fleury thought; and he maintained that
Plato and Cicero were much closer to Christian thinking than Seneca, so there
was no need to postulate direct contact with Christianity as an explanation in
Seneca’s case. He went further, urging that it was inconceivable that Seneca
would ever have formed a friendship with Paul, or, in view of his attested at-
titude towards Jewish religion (Ep. 95.47, Aug. Civ. 6.11), would have had any-
thing but contempt for his ideas if their paths had ever crossed. Others, more
judiciously perhaps, while rejecting Fleury’s edifice, were content to say that
we simply have no evidence to decide whether or not Seneca and Paul actually
met.52 On the question of the similarities between Seneca and Paul’s writing,
some, while emphasizing that there were also major differences, held that the
parallels could not be dismissed, but could be explained in other ways, for in-
stance by Jewish influence on early Stoicism;53 and Bruno Bauer took a more
radical direction, with his view that the early Christian writings were second
century creations, and that Seneca’s writings were one of the inspirations for
the Pauline epistles.54
An epigraphic discovery added fresh fuel to the historical argument. In 1867
Giovanni de Rossi published a funerary inscription from Ostia set up by a
Marcus Annaeus Paulus for a son with the remarkable name Marcus Annaeus
Paulus Petrus; de Rossi dated this to the second or third century, and argued
that it revealed a family tradition about the friendship between Seneca and

Baur, “Seneca und Paulus, das Verhältniss des Stoicismus zum Christenthum nach den
Schriften Seneca’s,” Zeitschrift für wissenschaftliche Theologie 1 (1858): 161-246, 441-70.
52 E.g., Boissier, “Christianisme,” or, more recently, Giuseppe Scarpat, Il pensiero religioso di
Seneca e l’ambiente ebraico e cristiano (Antichità Classica e Cristiana 14; Brescia: Paideia,
1977), and Eckard Lefèvre, “Il De Providentia di Seneca e il suo rapporto con il pensiero
cristiano,” in Martina, Seneca, 55-71, steer a roughly middle course. There is a review of
the literature in Fürst, “Pseudepigraphie,” 111-14.
53 See, for instance, the nuanced arguments of Joseph B. Lightfoot in the appendix on “St
Paul and Seneca” in his commentary on Philippians: St Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians
(6th ed.; London: Macmillan, 1881), 270-333.
54 Bruno Bauer, Christus und die Caesaren: der Ursprung des Christenthums aus dem römis-
chen Griechenthum (2d ed.; Berlin: Grosser, 1879). The work of other nineteenth-century
scholars is briefly reviewed by J.N. Sevenster, Paul and Seneca (NovTSup. 4; Leiden: Brill,
1961), 1-5.
Seneca and Paul: The First Two Thousand Years 39

Paul.55 In the course of a heavily revised second version of his book Aubertin
was able to rebut this argument too.56 But the case for personal contact be-
tween Seneca and Paul never went away; for instance, in 1887 Johannes Krey-
her argued afresh that Seneca’s works show the influence of Christian ideas,
and that Seneca knew Paul and helped him at his trial.57
Another development of nineteenth century scholarship was that the
Seneca-Paul correspondence, long acknowledged to be apocryphal, was ex-
amined as a historical and literary document in its own right. Careful reading
showed that the letters as transmitted are not arranged in the correct (fic-
titious) chronological order; and the later letters have exact dates, whereas
the earlier ones do not. How were these features to be explained? And how
could letters written in such barbaric Latin and so empty of philosophical or
theological content have induced Jerome to include Seneca in his De viris il-
lustribus? Hypotheses multiplied. Fleury was a pioneer, postulating that our
letters must be a medieval creation, and that the letters Jerome saw were
also apocryphal (for if genuine, Paul’s letters to Seneca would have been pre-
served in the canon), probably composed in the second century, very likely
in Greek.58 Others argued that some of our letters are a medieval forgery,
but the rest went back to Jerome’s time;59 some argued that our Latin let-
ters were clumsy translations from a Greek original, variously dated, and also

55 Giovanni Battista de Rossi, “Iscrizione trovata in Ostia di un M. Anneo Paolo Pietro; e le

relazioni tra Paolo l’apostolo e Seneca,” Bullettino di Archeologia Cristiana 5 (1867): 6-8.
56 Charles Aubertin, Sénèque et Saint Paul. É tude sur les rapports supposés entre le philosophe
et l’ apôtre (Paris: Didier, 1869). The inscription is discussed on 383-88.
57 Kreyher, Seneca.
58 Fleury, Saint Paul, 2.255-83, with an account of earlier scholarship.
59 Eugen Westerburg, Der Ursprung der Sage, dass Seneca Christ gewesen sei. Eine kritische
Untersuchung nebst einer Rezension des apokryphen Briefwechsels des Apostels Paulus mit
Seneca (Berlin: Grosser, 1881); Paul Faider, Études sur Sénèque (Gand: van Rysselberghe
& Rombaut, 1921), 89-96; Karl Pink, “Die pseudopaulinische Briefe, ii,” Biblica 6 (1925):
179-200 at 199-200.
60 Adolf von Harnack, review of Westerburg, Ursprung, in Theologische Literaturzeitung 6
(1881): 444-9, argued for a Greek original of the third century, but he was later more
cautious on the issue, in Geschichte der altchristlichen Litteratur bis Eusebius (Leipzig:
Hinrichs, 1893-1904), 1.763-5, 2.458-9; Carlo Pascal, “La falsa corrispondenza tra Seneca e
Paolo,” Rivista di Filologia 35 (1907): 33-42 = Letteratura latina medievale (Catania, 1909),
123-140; Adriana Ballanti, “Documenti sull’opposizione degli intellettuali a Domiziano,”
Annali della Facoltà di Lettere e Filosofia dell’Università di Napoli 4 (1954): 75-95.
40 Hine

5 Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries

Arguments of the kind used by Fleury have reappeared periodically, with mod-
ifications, during the twentieth century, for instance in the work of Eleuterio
Elorduy.61 Léon Herrmann discerned implicit references to Christianity in a
whole range of first-century Latin authors where no one else had seen them,
and thought that Seneca oscillated between sympathy and antagonism to-
wards the Christians during his lifetime.62 G.M. Lee renewed the case for iden-
tifying the Theophilus of Luke-Acts with Seneca.63
But the latter part of the twentieth century saw major, and largely indepen-
dent, developments in scholarship on both Seneca and Paul. In the present
context there is no need to describe the Pauline side, but obviously the re-
newed concern to understand Paul against the background of Greek philoso-
phy was vital for our topic. In classical studies (at least in the English-speaking
world, where he had been particularly neglected) Seneca had a notable revival
in the second half of the century, for several reasons: modern and post-modern
sensibilities were more attuned to Senecan tragedy; post-Aristotelian philoso-
phy in general, and Roman philosophy in particular, was treated with a new
seriousness; and the interconnections between Seneca’s public career, philos-
ophy, and tragedies, were the focus of critical attention. Among the fruits of
such developments has been increasingly nuanced discussion of the relation-
ship between the thought of the two men,64 and of the relationship of each to
his philosophical tradition, with both Seneca and Paul being claimed by some
as original philosophical thinkers.65
There have been many new editions of Seneca’s works and commentaries
on them, and this scholarly attention has extended to the Seneca-Paul corre-
spondence. In English the edition by Barlow and translation by Elliott have
already been mentioned.66 There had been work on the manuscripts earlier in

61 Elorduy, “Séneca y el cristianismo;” Seneca, 1. Vida y escritos (Madrid: Consejo Superior de

Investigaciones Científicas, 1965), 310-53.
62 Léon Herrmann, Sénèque et les premiers chrétiens (Collection Latomus 167; Brussels: Lato-
mus, 1979); reviewed incisively by Giovanni Cupaiuolo, “Alcuni recenti studi senecani,”
Bollettino di Studi Latini 10 (1980): 76-81 at 80-81.
63 G.M. Lee, “Was Seneca the Theophilus of Luke?,” in Hommages à Marcel Renard, 1 (ed.
Jacqueline Bibauw; Collection Latomus, 101; Brussels, 1969), 515-32.
64 Notably Sevenster, Paul and Seneca.
65 On Seneca, see particularly Brad Inwood, Reading Seneca. Stoic Philosophy at Rome (Ox-
ford: Clarendon, 2005); on Paul, Troels Engberg-Pedersen, Paul and the Stoics (Edinburgh:
T&T Clark, 2000).
66 n12.
Seneca and Paul: The First Two Thousand Years 41

the twentieth century, but Barlow’s was the first proper attempt to survey and
classify all the earlier manuscripts.67 There are more recent editions in other
languages, with fuller commentaries, notably those of Laura Bocciolini Palagi
and Monica Natali in Italian, and the German edition with associated essays
by Alfons Fürst and others.68 These scholars all agree that the letters are not
authentic, but vigorous debate about the origin and unity of the collection has
continued. For instance, Bocciolini Palagi and others have argued that letter 11
on the great fire at Rome is a later addition, because it differs significantly in
outlook from the other letters, with its hostile attitude to Nero, and its bracket-
ing of the Jews with the Christians rather than with the pagans; though others
do not find the arguments compelling.69
These editors, and other scholars, have added to the arguments for a fourth-
century dating of the letters,70 but the closing decades of the twentieth cen-
tury also saw the reemergence of claims that the letters are genuine after
all. E. Franceschini in 1981 published a paper entitled “È veramente apocrifo
l’epistolario Seneca-S. Paolo?” (“Is the Seneca-St Paul correspondence really
apocryphal?”), briefly challenging the case against their authenticity and cit-
ing, without supporting evidence, the opinion of Concetto Marchesi (in a pri-
vate communication) that there is a distinction between the good Latin of
the Seneca letters and the semi-barbaric Latin of the Pauline letters, some-
thing, Franceschini claimed, that a forger was unlikely to achieve.71 In his En-
glish edition and translation of the letters Paul Berry never even acknowledges
that anyone has entertained doubts about the letters’ authenticity (despite in-

67 Alfons Kurfess wrote a series of articles on the text and interpretation of the letters,
e.g., “Zum Apokryphen Briefwechsel zwischen Seneca und Paulus,” Theologische Quar-
talschrift 119 (1938): 318-31.
68 Bocciolini Palagi, Carteggio, and a later revised version, Epistolario; Natali, Epistolario;
Alfons Fürst, Therese Fuhrer, Folker Siegert, and Peter Walter, Der apokryphe Briefwechsel
zwischen Seneca und Paulus: zusammen mit dem Brief des Mordechai an Alexander und
dem Brief des Annaeus Seneca über Hochmut und Götterbilder (Sapere 11; Tübingen: Mohr
Siebeck, 2006).
69 Bocciolini Palagi, Epistolario, 35-45. Fürst, “Pseudepigraphie,” 88, for one, is not fully per-
70 See also Kenneth M. Abbott, “Seneca and St Paul,” in Wege der Worte. Festschrift für Wolf-
gang Fleischhauer (ed. Donald C. Riechel; Cologne: Böhlau, 1978), 119-31.
71 E. Franceschini, “È veramente apocrifo l’epistolario Seneca-S. Paolo?,” in Letterature com-
parate. Problemi e metodo. Studi in onore di E. Paratore (Bologna: Pàtron, 1981), 827-41.
Lightfoot, Philippians, 331, had earlier said in passing that he thought he detected an in-
ept attempt by the writer to differentiate the styles of Seneca and Paul.
42 Hine

cluding the work of Aubertin and Barlow in his meagre bibliography), and he
uses them as historical documents to support his picture of an early church in
which Latin was the main language.72 Guiseppe Gamba also takes the letters
to be genuine, constructing a rather different story of the early Roman church,
and, unlike Berry, acknowledging that most of the scholarly world thinks the
letters are spurious. He offers some reasons for disagreeing: for instance, he
argues that the flimsy content and chronological disorganization of the col-
lection speak for genuineness rather than a conscious forgery; and he offers
evidence of the difference between Paul’s and Seneca’s Latin by listing words
that are confined to the letters of the one or the other (but in the case of
such short texts these lists prove nothing).73 The view that the Latin of the
two authors is significantly different has been developed with more care by
Ilaria Ramelli. She shares the view that letter 11 does not belong with the orig-
inal collection, and argues that, of the remaining letters, only those from Paul
contain significant Greek features, and only they pose significant difficulties of
understanding; a forger is unlikely to have made such a distinction, and more
likely the Pauline letters were written by a Greek-speaker relatively unfamil-
iar with Latin; so they could be authentic.74 Her arguments have persuaded
Marta Sordi to move from acceptance of the spuriousness of the letters to

72 Berry, Correspondence; also The Encounter between Seneca and Christianity (Lewiston:
Edwin Mellen, 2002). As an example of his argumentation, at Correspondence, ix-x, he
quotes Leighton D. Reynolds and Nigel G. Wilson, Scribes and Scholars: A Guide to the
Transmission of Greek and Latin Literature (2d ed.; Oxford: Clarendon, 1974), 48: “The
lands of the eastern Mediterranean are commonly believed to have been bilingual under
the Roman empire. But this view is exaggerated, and the mass of the population proba-
bly spoke little or no Greek.” Berry takes this to mean that the population mostly spoke
Latin. Reynolds and Wilson, of course, mean nothing of the sort, but are talking about
the prevalence of Syriac and other eastern vernaculars.
73 Giuseppe G. Gamba, Il “carteggio” tra L. Anneo Seneca e l’apostolo Paolo. Proposta per una
sua lettura contestuale (Rome: Libreria Ateneo Salesiano, 2001), lists on 57-62.
74 Ilaria L.E. Ramelli, “L’epistolario apocrifo Seneca-San Paolo: alcune osservazioni,” Vetera
Christianorum 34 (1997): 299-310; “Appendice: Aspetti linguistici dell’epistolario Seneca-
San Paolo,” in Martina, Seneca, 123-7; “Bilingualism in the Pseudo-epigraphical Correspon-
dence between Seneca and Paul,” in “Vtroque sermone nostro”: bilingüismo social y liter-
ario en el Imperio de Roma, Social and Literary Bilingualism in the Roman Empire (ed. José
Bernardino Torres Guerra; Mundo Antiguo n.s. 14; Pamplona: EUNSA, 2011), 29-39; “Note
sull’ epistolario tra Seneca e s. Paolo alla luce delle osservazioni di Erasmo,” Invigilata
Lucernis 26 (2004): 225-37. But one can challenge her distinction between the Senecan
and Pauline letters: according to her own criteria, in the Senecan letter 1, both apocrifis
and praesentiam tui are evidence of a Greek-speaking author.
Seneca and Paul: The First Two Thousand Years 43

open-mindedness on their authenticity.75 But the case for a fourth-century

date has been restated by Maria Grazia Mara and others.76
It remains true that, as Momigliano observed in 1950, we do not yet have
a thorough examination of the language of the letters, although a number of
people, Momigliano included, have offered selective observations.77 Ramelli
argues that the letters to Paul are written in an informal style; therefore, since
we do not have any examples of how Romans wrote informally, we cannot ar-
gue that the letters are spurious just because they differ in style from Seneca’s
other works. But this argument needs to be challenged: we do have informal
as well as informal letters of Cicero’s, while Seneca himself writes in a lower,
more informal register in the prose sections of his Apocolocyntosis; and there
is a small but growing corpus of letters and other documents written in sub-
standard Latin on papyrus, wax tablets and ostraca, which could usefully be
brought into play.
During the twentieth century, as in earlier centuries, Seneca and Paul have
not confined themselves to academia. The nineteenth century saw the begin-
ning of a tradition of historical novels focusing on Nero, or on the early church
in Rome, around the time of the Neronian persecution. Both men usually ap-
pear as characters, but Seneca is often an unappealing minor player who never
comes face to face with Paul. To take just one example, in Henryk Sienkiewicz’s
Polish novel Quo Vadis? (1890), one of the earliest and most successful of the
genre, Seneca has a relatively minor role, and is a weak-willed compromiser:
“Seneca lacked the moral fortitude of a Cornutus, say, or of Trachea, so that

75 Marta Sordi, Il cristianesimo e Roma (Bologna: Cappelli, 1965), 71-2, accepted the inau-
thenticity of the letters, while believing that Seneca could have known of Paul and his
trial. For her more recent change of mind, see: “I rapporti personali di Seneca con i cris-
tiani,” in Martina, Seneca, 113-22; “Seneca e i Cristiani,” in “Amicitiae templa serena”: studi
in onore di Giuseppe Aricò (ed. Luigi Castagna and Chiara Riboldi; 2 vols.; Milan: Vita e
Pensiero, 2008), 2.1503-1521. Sordi also accepts P. Susini’s dating of the Ostia inscription
for Annaeus Paulus Petrus to the end of the first cenutry or first half of the second cen-
tury, making it more likely that it celebrates a friendship between Seneca and Paul; but
this date and interpretation is rejected by Marco Buonocore, “Paganesimo o cristianesimo
tra i Marci Annaei in Italia?,” Vetera Christianorum 37 (2000): 217-34.
76 Maria Grazia Mara, “L’epistolario apocrifo di Seneca e San Paolo,” in Martina, Seneca,
41-54; also Hans-Josef Klauck, Die apokryphe Bibel: ein anderer Zugang zum frühen Chris-
tentum (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008), 199-228; Giancarlo Mazzoli, “Paolo e Seneca:
virtualità e aporie d’un incontro,” Sandalion 31 (2008): 49-64.
77 Momigliano, “Note,” 16-17; Barlow, Epistolae, 70-79; but linguistic matters are not his
strong point, see the review by Roger A.B. Mynors in JTS 41 (1940): 194-96; most recently,
see Fürst, Briefwechsel, 7.
44 Hine

his life was a series of retreats before depravity, duplicity and murder” (p. 41).
The role Seneca had played for centuries, of a bridge between the upper eche-
lons of Roman society and the early church, is taken over by the more colour-
ful Petronius. At one point it is reported by another character that Seneca
would like to meet Paul (p. 323), but nothing comes of it; Seneca’s death is
mentioned only briefly along with many others implicated in the conspiracy
(p. 561), and the novel concludes with the suicide of Petronius along with his
slave-wife Eunice.78 Seneca gets slightly more sympathetic treatment in Hu-
bert Monteilhet’s witty French novel Neropolis (1984): he has some familiarity
with Judaism, having encountered Philo during his convalescence in Egypt,
and with Christianity, having exchanged lengthy letters with Gallio at the time
of Paul’s appearance before him. When Paul is in Rome, Seneca seeks him
out, but is disappointed; in his own words: “Our discussion was, alas, a com-
plete failure. Paul is a propagandist with a training which is rabbinical rather
than philosophical. His Greek culture is very superficial. All he can do is re-
peat highly arguable explanations or make extravagant dogmatic assertions.
He’s half Jewish and half mad. But like many insane people, he can reason per-
fectly. He speaks with plenty of fire and conviction. He’s entirely spontaneous.
No one could ever find him boring, which is more than I can say for some of
my philosopher friends” (p. 300). But Seneca’s verdict seems harsh when one
reads Paul’s later conversations with a young Roman called Kaeso.79 However,
in the German drama Seneca: Dramatische Dichtung um Paulus in Neros Rom
by Friedrich Hiebel (1974), Seneca, though he never encounters Paul, is drawn
to his teaching, as he hears about him from Gallio, and from Acte and Pom-
ponia Graecina, both Christians; Acte declares that Seneca is a Christian with-
out realizing it (p. 122); and he exits to his death declaring that his conscience
will awaken him to new birth (p. 130).80
Seneca and Paul continue to draw the occasional attention of non-
specialists. For instance, in 1931 an entertaining serio-comic piece by M.J. Gold-
bloom imagined a discussion between Nero, Seneca and Paul on the founda-
tions of morality. Nero, displaying more philosophical finesse than Seneca,
who is described in the cast list as “not too clever” (p. 370), runs rings round
the latter’s attempts to provide a philosophical basis for moral behaviour; but

78 Quotations from Henryk Sienkiewicz, Quo Vadis (trans. W.S. Kuniczak; New York: Hip-
pocrene, 1997).
79 Quotations from Hubert Montheilhet, Neropolis: A Novel of Life in Nero’s Rome (trans.
Christopher Robinson; Harmondsworth: Viking, 1988).
80 Friedrich Hiebel, Seneca: Dramatische Dichtung um Paulus in Neros Rom (Stuttgart: Freies
Geistesleben, 1974).
Seneca and Paul: The First Two Thousand Years 45

Nero is rather drawn to the form of predestination ascribed to Paul, since it im-
plies “that we are not justified in making moral judgments concerning persons
on a basis of their acts” (p. 379); which rather suits the amoral Nero as he exits
to arrange the assassination of his mother.81 More recently, David Mitchell, in
a self-published book, has written a general account of the apocryphal cor-
respondence and its historical importance, particularly for the reputation of
Seneca.82 By contrast, the French novelist and writer Joël Schmidt, in the tra-
dition of Fleury and others, argues for the likelihood of Seneca having met
Paul and having been attracted by his ideas.83 One can even find online a
reconstruction of Seneca’s last tragedy on Christ’s passion.84

6 Concluding Remarks

Looking back over nearly two millennia of Seneca and Paul, one can detect
a shift in the centre of gravity, as it were, starting in the nineteenth century,
or maybe earlier. In the preceding centuries, it was chiefly readers of Seneca
who focused on his relationship to Paul: in the later Middle Ages they believed
the two men had corresponded, in the early humanist period some believed
that Seneca had been converted, and even after the letters were exposed as
forgeries and the conversion was denied, many readers were still attracted to
Seneca because of his closeness to Christianity, at the same time as others
questioned the degree of closeness. But by the start of the twenty-first century
only a minority of scholars or readers of Seneca display much interest in his
possible relationship to Paul or Christianity. At the same time, Pauline scholars
have become increasingly interested in Paul’s relationship to Stoicism, includ-
ing Seneca, whereas scholars of Greco-Roman philosophy have generally kept
their distance from Paul and other Christian literature.85
Looking back over some of the hypotheses, fictions and fantasies that have
characterized the two millennia, one may be tempted to repeat Erasmus’s sigh
at the end of his discussion of the apocryphal letters: “Sed ego nimis multa

81 M.J. Goldbloom, “Nero de moribus,” Open Court (Chicago, 1931): 370-79.

82 David Mitchell, Legacy: The Apocryphal Correspondence between Seneca and Paul (Xlibris,
83 Schmidt, L’Apôtre.
84 www.nazarenus.com.
85 A contrast highlighted by Troels Engberg-Pedersen, “Stoicism in the Apostle Paul: A Philo-
sophical Reading,” in Stoicism: Traditions and Transformations (ed. Steven K. Strange and
Jack Zupko; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 52-75 at 55.
46 Hine

de re nihili” (“But I’ve said too much on a trivial topic”). But that would be
to overlook both the importance of Paul and Christianity in the kaleidoscopic
history of the reception of Seneca, and the fact that at times Seneca and Paul
have provided a focus for constructive thinking on wider questions, about how
to imagine the social make-up and social reach of the early church, and about
how to account for the evident similarities between the surviving writings of
the two men.
At the same time, discussion of Seneca and Paul has often, undoubtedly,
been shaped by prior theological or ideological positions; but, without further
knowledge of the cultural and religious context of many of the people who
have been mentioned, I can only offer a few tentative reflections. Augustine
recognized, with some discomfort, that the conversion of a famous figure at-
tracts far more attention than the conversion of an unknown (Conf. 8.4), and
Seneca is far from being the only prominent Roman figure who at some time
or other has been claimed as a convert to the fledgling church: the list would
include Nero, Acte, Pomponia Graecina, the novelist Petronius, the poet Lu-
can, Demetrius the Cynic, the Stoic senator Thrasea Paetus, the poet Statius,
the younger Pliny, the emperor Trajan, and others.86 For most of these conver-
sions, the evidence is non-existent or exiguous in the extreme; only in the case
of Seneca is there the combination of historical opportunity with extensive
writings that often seem to converge with Christian thinking, and hence the
possibility of such a distinguished figure having been converted has exerted a
powerful attraction over many centuries.
More specifically, it has occasionally been suggested that there has been a
divide between Catholic scholars who supported the long church tradition of a
friendship between the two men, and Protestant scholars who denied it.87 This
is at best an over-simplification. A number of Catholic writers have indeed
advocated that traditional view; some have accepted the authenticity of the
letters; and recently some supporters of the Latin mass have applauded Paul
Berry’s advocacy of the genuineness of the Seneca-Paul correspondence.88
But the tradition was never unanimous, as we have seen; already in the fif-
teenth century the relationship of Seneca to Christianity was debated and the
authenticity of the correspondence questioned; Erasmus, leading denouncer
of the apocryphal letters and the Christian Seneca, declined to align himself

86 On Acte and Pomponia Graecina, see above, section 4; a number of these traditions are
discussed, sometimes sceptically, by Fleury, Saint Paul, 2.21-48, 104-21, 147-73.
87 E.g., Fleury, Saint Paul, 348-50.
88 See the Traditio website, http://www.traditio.com/feature/seneca.htm (accessed 8
September, 2015).
Seneca and Paul: The First Two Thousand Years 47

wholeheartedly with either Catholics or Protestants; ever since the Reforma-

tion many Catholic writers have rejected the letters, along with the story of
Seneca’s Christianity.89 And some Protestants have thought the closeness of
Seneca’s thought to Christianity could not be explained away: some have been
drawn to the possibility that Seneca encountered Paul and learnt from him;90
others, from Zwingli onwards, have rather understood that closeness in theo-
logical terms: all truth is God’s truth, and some of it has been revealed to those
outside the church.91 Calvin, by contrast, though he cut his scholarly teeth on a
commentary on Seneca’s De Clementia, later stressed the divergences between
Seneca’s Stoicism and Christian doctrine.92
Recently, some of the advocates for the authenticity of the correspondence
consciously see themselves as opposing a predominantly secular intellectual
climate: Franceschini remarks that “la filologia è ancora essenzialmente ma-
terialista” (“philology is still essentially materialist”), a remark quoted ap-
provingly by Gamba.93 Against such views it is probably idle to reply that
many scholars with Christian convictions (the present writer included) have
judged the evidence against authenticity to be decisive, and the arguments
for Seneca’s contacts with Christianity to be inconclusive. But we may observe
that for some modern readers part of the attraction of Seneca is precisely that
he is not Christian; for instance, in the 2001 book The Spiritual Teachings of
Seneca, Mark Forstater says: “Because Stoicism is pre-Christian, we can look
at its ethical stance without the bias of a Christian viewpoint and judge it on

89 On Catholic scholars, see Boissier, “Christianisme,” 40; Bocciolini Palagi, Carteggio, 22-29.
90 In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries Kreyher, Seneca, came from a Protestant pub-
lishing house; and in 1914 the Evangelische Kirchenzeitung published a short article ar-
guing that it was quite possible that Seneca knew Paul, though unlikely he became a
Christian: W. Ensslin, “Seneca und Paulus,” Evangelische Kirchenzeitung 88 (1914): 39-40.
91 On Zwingli’s attitude to Seneca (and to Plato), see W.P. Stephens, The Theology of
Huldrych Zwingli (Oxford: Clarendon, 1986), 14-15. Similarly, the Anglican Frederic W. Far-
rar, Seekers after God (The Sunday Library for Household Reading 3; London: Macmillan,
1868), while thinking it extremely unlikely that Seneca met or learnt anything from Paul
(170-71), regarded Seneca, and Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, as genuine seekers after
God who were granted a degree of enlightenment.
92 Calvin’s 1532 commentary is edited by Ford L. Battles and André M. Hugo, Calvin’s Com-
mentary on Seneca’s De Clementia, with Introduction, Translation and Notes (The Renais-
sance Society of America, Renaissance Text Series 3; Leiden: Brill, 1969), with discussion
of Calvin’s attitude to Seneca in that work on 32-62. On Calvin’s later attitude, see Ross,
“Philosophical Influence,” 145.
93 Franceschini, “È veramente,” 831; Gamba, Carteggio, 18.
48 Hine

the basis of its practicality”;94 and Richard Dawkins, in The God Delusion, has a
quotation from Seneca: “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by
the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.”95 However, this is not by Seneca
at all. Where the misattribution started I do not know, but an internet search
will reveal how frequently it is nowadays quoted online, including on atheist
and secularist websites.96 So the story that began with a Christian apocryphon
ends, for the moment, with an atheist one. But the story will doubtless con-
A final thought: early on I remarked that the Seneca-Paul correspondence
could be considered to be the earliest dialogue between the two men. At the
end of our journey we may wonder whether it has been the only such dia-
logue: in all the speculation about a relationship between them, the focus has
mainly been on the consequences of their putative encounter – Seneca’s sup-
port at Paul’s trial, or his conversion, or the Christian ideas contained in his
own writings. In Goldbloom’s dialogue, Nero takes a Socratic lead, and Seneca
and Paul never directly address each other; in Monteilhet’s novel their one re-
ported encounter is abortive; and Hiebel’s play, despite its title, never brings
Paul on stage. No doubt there may be dialogues of which I am ignorant; but it
is surely high time that someone imagined what Seneca and Paul might have
had to say to each other if they ever met.97

94 Mark Forstater and Victoria Radin, The Spiritual Teachings of Seneca (Ancient Philosophy
for Modern Wisdom; London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2001).
95 Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (London: Bantam, 2006), 276; paperback version
(London: Black Swan, 2007), 313.
96 The quotation does not feature in the survey of Seneca on the internet in Francesco Citti
and Camillo Neri, Seneca nel Novecento. Sondaggi sulla fortuna di un “classico” (Rome:
Carocci, 2001), 195-222; so its arrival on the internet may well postdate their work, and
indeed Dawkins’.
97 I am grateful to the editors for suggestions that have enabled me to strengthen the argu-
ment of the paper; but the responsibility for any remaining defects is entirely my own.
Some Observations on Paul and Seneca as Letter

E. Randolph Richards

1 Introduction

To have letter collections from Paul and Seneca, written from virtually the
same time and location in world history, encourages us to compare them as
letter writers.1 Such a comparison begs the question: Can we use Seneca’s let-
ters to discuss anything about Seneca as a letter writer? It has been noted
at least as early as Francis Bacon that these are not mere letters. “It is now
widely agreed that Seneca’s letters in their present form, whatever their re-
lationship might have been to a real correspondence, are creations of the
writer’s craft.”2 Whether or not the letters began as actual missives, Brad In-
wood argues that Seneca’s letters should still be considered letters and not

1 My first thought was to compare what Seneca and Paul each say about letter writing; how-
ever, that task has already been done well by Abraham Malherbe, “‘Seneca’ on Paul as Letter
Writer,” in The Future of Early Christianity (ed. Birger A. Pearson; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991),
2 Brad Inwood, “Introduction,” in Seneca: Selected Philosophical Letters (Oxford: Oxford Uni-
versity Press, 2007), xii. Miriam Griffin made what many consider a decisive case that the
correspondence with Lucilius is “essentially fictitious” (Seneca: A Philosopher in Politics [2d
ed.; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992], appendix B4). Yet, others contend it possible that
the collection began with actual correspondence. Gummere, the LCL editor, noted it is plau-
sible, but not universally accepted “that the poem Aetna, of uncertain authorship, may have
been written by Lucilius in response to this letter” (Richard M. Gummere, Seneca: Epistles
[Loeb Classical Library, 3 vols.; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1917], 2:200 note a),
but nonetheless, called it “a collection of essays rather than of letters” (1:xii). Scholars to-
day often avoid the question. Thus, John Schafer writes, “one need not say whether Seneca
actually sent these letters” (“Seneca’s Epistolae Morales as Dramatized Education,” Classical
Philology 106/1 [2011]: 32-52 at 45).
3 Brad Inwood, “The Importance of Form in the Letters of Seneca the Younger,” in Ancient
Letters: Classical and Late Antique Epistolography (ed. Ruth Morello and Andrew Morrison;
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 134-35. He cites an equally compelling (earlier) argu-
ment by M. Wilson, “Seneca’s Epistles Reclassified,” in Texts, Ideas and the Classics (ed. S.J.
Harrison; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 164-87.

© Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2017 | DOI 10.1163/9789004341364 004

50 Richards

It is quite likely that Seneca’s decision to compose a collection of letters

addressed to a single correspondent, and a close friend at that, was de-
termined by the model of Cicero’s Letters to Atticus. If so, then we would
be well advised to take this into consideration when thinking about the
relationship (literary or real) between Lucilius and Seneca.4

Since Seneca deliberately chose the epistolary genre, Inwood concludes even
if the letters are pure creations by Seneca, he was intentionally imitating letter
writing and thus was a letter writer.5 Furthermore, Seneca “certainly wrote
each one as an artistic unit”6 and therefore we can speak of distinct “letters”
within the collection. Whether Seneca created an epistolary scenario or used
actual letters,7 he has placed himself into a genre with defined parameters.

2 Challenges to Comparing the Letters of Paul and Seneca

The similarities of Paul and Seneca are astounding, when viewed from a
global perspective – they are both Roman citizens writing within ten years of
each other and from the Mediterranean region. Nonetheless, their differences
should not be glossed.

2.1 Linguistic Differences

Generalizations about ancient Greek and Latin letters are not without basis.8
The conventions of Greco-Roman letter writing are well established, as first-
century Mediterranean letters were remarkably consistent in format, whether

4 Inwood, “Form,” 142.

5 See his fuller argument in Inwood, “Form,” 133-48. For this reason, we will not be examining
his moral essays, for they are not cast in epistolary garb.
6 Inwood, “Introduction,” xxiii.
7 We need not make the choices as extreme as does John Schafer (“Dramatized Education”)
where the choices are “essentially fictional” (34) or “a private correspondence unintended
for publication” (34, n11).
8 This standardization from 300 B.C.E. to 300 C.E. under various empires from the Seleucid
to the Roman was most likely the result of widespread elementary training in letter writ-
ing, as argued by John White, “The Ancient Epistolography Group in Retrospect,” Semeia
22 (1981): 10; so also Abraham J. Malherbe, “Ancient Epistolary Theorists,” Ohio Journal of
Religious Studies 5 (1977): 4-5. I also note the widespread use of secretaries for all types of
letter writing by all levels of society aided the standardization of letter format and content.
See E.R. Richards, The Secretary in the Letters of Paul (WUNT 2/42; Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck,
1991). Seneca mentions how writing was taught (Ep. 94.51).
Some Observations on Paul and Seneca as Letter Writers 51

written in Greek, Latin, or even provincial languages like Aramaic.9 Paul’s

Greek is routinely characterized as unpolished. Ancient Christian writers ex-
plained it in various ways. Augustine thought Paul was not trained in rhetoric;
rather divine inspiration led to Paul’s eloquence.10 Origen considered Paul’s
skill in language to be the earthen vessel (2 Cor 4:7) in which the treasures of
the gospel were held, “to win the attention of the more ignorant by the use of
language which is familiar to them” (Cels. 6.60). Other writers, such as Tatian
and the Atticizers, took a more direct hand and merely improved Paul’s Greek.
While Seneca’s letters belie a casual tone, his Latin was “bold,” moving
beyond “a somewhat stiff and Ciceronian” style.11 This boldness was accom-
plished with a more colloquial style, seen in the “directness and urgency of
the author’s personal voice.”12 While Seneca’s father admired the more clas-
sical rhetoricians from his youth and decried the contemporary style popu-
lar in the Neronian period as “effeminate and excessive,” Seneca the Younger
becomes the epitome of that style.13 While the literary theorists of Seneca’s

9 Greco-Roman authors mixing Greek and Latin in a single letter is not surprising. Cicero
tossed in the Greek word in Greek script into a Latin letter (Fam. 16.17.1), as does Seneca
(9.2), but Seneca does so only when referring to a Greek word. Otherwise, he is more
reserved, substituting Latin technical terms for Greek philosophical terms (e.g., the Latin
commoda for the Greek proegmena) – and debating at length the merits of such terms. In
the letters attributed to him, I am aware of Paul mixing languages only once, transliterat-
ing the Latin membranae into Greek membranai. See Richards, Secretary, 164-68; and also
Colin H. Roberts and T.C. Skeat, The Birth of the Codex (2d ed.; London: Oxford University
Press, 1983), 30. Mixing languages scarcely tells us anything about either man as a let-
ter writer. Like most educated Greco-Roman writers, Seneca, Cicero, and even probably
Paul, had proficiency in both Greek and Latin. Robert Coleman notes that the Silver Latin
prose style picked up participial usage from Greek influence. See “The Artful Moralist:
A Study of Seneca’s Epistolary Style,” The Classical Quarterly 24/2 (1974): 276-89 at 279.
I am not persuaded by the arguments of Eleanor Dickey who argues that during the time
of Seneca, it may have flowed the other way: “The Greek Address System of the Roman
Period and Its Relationship to Latin Author(s),” The Classical Quarterly 54 (2004): 494-527,
esp. 505.
10 Augustine, De doctrina christiana. See the helpful discussion in E.A. Judge, “Paul’s Boast-
ing in Relation to Contemporary Professional Practice,” Australian Biblical Review 16
(1968): 38-40. Abraham Malherbe critiques Paul in light of the expectations Seneca gives
of letter writing: “‘Seneca’ on Paul,” 414-21.
11 Gummere, LCL, 1:xii, n1.
12 Or as Inwood correctly notes, “the voice which he chooses to let us hear” (“Introduction,”
13 Christopher Trinacty, “Like Father, Like Son?: Selected Examples of Intertextuality in
Seneca the Younger and Seneca the Elder,” Phoenix 63 (2009): 260-77 at 260.
52 Richards

day frowned upon colloquialisms, “there were certain literary genres that were
granted special license in this respect.”14 The epistolary format provided the
Younger Seneca the permitted rhetorical platform: “I prefer that my letters
should be just what my conversation would be if you and I were sitting in one
another’s company” (Ep. 85.1).
While Seneca’s letters maintained a semblance of being quickly written in
a free moment, one letter after another, this was merely a guise,15 an oppor-
tunity for rhetorical impact. Seneca writes, “You complain that you receive
from me letters which are rather carelessly written” (75.1), but Gummere noted
Seneca’s “ingenious juxtaposition of effective words, the balance in style and
thought, and the continual striving after point.”16 Cicero had likewise dis-
missed a speech as “carelessly written”17 and Ciceronian scholars noted also
that such comments were not to be taken literally: “it is a serious error to as-
cribe carelessness to them. His style is colloquial but thoroughly accurate. . . .
Every adjective is set down with as careful a pen as was ever plied by a mas-
terhand.”18 Paul’s letters contain grammatical blunders19 he did not bother to
correct in the editing process, but Seneca notes such mistakes should cause
a writer to “blush” (95.9). Although Paul’s letters have a genuine koine quality,
the seeming casualness of Seneca’s letters is artificial, manipulating the genre
for rhetorical purposes.20

14 Coleman, “Artful Moralist,” 277. We see Cicero’s influence: “How do I strike you in my
letters? Don’t I seem to talk to you in the language of the common folk? . . . my letters
I generally compose in the language of everyday life” (Fam. 9.21.1).
15 Inwood, “Introduction,” xxi: “Seneca presents himself in the Letters as a philosopher in a
16 Gummere, LCL, 1:xii.
17 Att. 3.12. It may be a common way to disparage a writing. Cicero comments: “Please note
his [Pompey’s] careless style and my careful answer” (8.11).
18 Robert Yelverton Tyrrell and Louis Claude Purser, The Correspondence of M. Tullius Cicero
(7 vols.; 3d rev. ed.; London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1933), 1:76.
19 One might note the peculiar grammar in 1 Cor 14:7, the casus pendens in Rom 8:3 or the
wrong case in Rom 2:8 or the antecedents of ho (neuter) in Eph 5:5 and Col 3:14. See Nigel
Turner, Style, vol. 4 in A Grammar of New Testament Greek (ed. J.H. Moulton; Edinburgh:
T&T Clark, 1976), 86. One might rescue the Pauline phraseology “blood and flesh” (Eph
6:12), which is commonly “corrected” in English translations to “flesh and blood” (NIV)
to match the standard rhetorical phrase (which Paul uses in 1 Cor 15:50) by suggesting a
sudden preference for the rabbinic order. See Paul Ellingworth, The Epistle to the Hebrews
(NIGTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 171-72. Cf. an allusion to the Last Supper (John
6:54-56), but it was probably merely rhetorical carelessness.
20 Seneca though frowns upon the contemporary practice of coining new words (114.10), a
practice seen in Paul (Rom 8:37).
Some Observations on Paul and Seneca as Letter Writers 53

2.2 Economic and Ethnic Differences

Seneca belonged to the wealthy elite of Rome, which is widely accepted as
comprising 3% of the population. Traditionally, most of the remaining people
were assigned to “poor,” both πτωχός (the desperately poor) and πένης (one
who must live quite sparingly). Moses Finley estimated that 90% of the pop-
ulation was at the bottom,21 but his very binary understanding of wealth has
been called into question by Steve Friesen, who created a sliding poverty scale
(PS), now termed an economic scale (ES), with seven levels.22 The size of the
highest two levels (the wealth class) is not really debated. He estimated the
ultra-wealthy (ES1), perhaps 1%, and others of great wealth (ES2-ES3), another
2-3%, where we would classify Seneca. Friesen then distinguished the lowest
two levels: the very poorest (ES7) and those nearly as poor (ES6). While the re-
maining two levels (“middling classes”) are still being nuanced,23 the estimates
of Longenecker and Friesen are similar enough to provide a picture of where

21 Moses Finley, The Ancient Economy (London: Chatto & Windus, 1975). For the view that
Pauline congregations were largely members of the marginalized date back at least as
far as A. Deissmann, see the discussion in Abraham J. Malherbe, Social Aspects of Early
Christianity (2d ed.; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983), 31.
22 Steven J. Friesen, “Poverty in Pauline Studies: Beyond the So-called New Consensus,” JSNT
26.3 (2004): 323-61. His 2004 Poverty Scale, as modified by Bruce Longenecker, seems the
preferred model. See Bruce W. Longenecker, Remember the Poor: Paul, Poverty and the
Greco-Roman World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010).
23 Friesen estimated ES5 to be 22% of the remaining 29%. Often ES5 is included with the
bottom two, thus describing the three lowest levels (ES5-ES7) as “the poor.” In this frame-
work, the “middling class” (ES4) is reduced to 7%. While discussions still often assert
there was no “middle class” in the ancient world, Longenecker argues this is anachronis-
tic for Greco-Roman society, which differentiated by patron and client, not social class
(55-56). Longenecker argues that Friesen’s position was overly dominated by the tradi-
tional bifurcation (wealthy/poor) commonly assumed of antiquity. Friesen used the gen-
erally accepted estimates of C.R. Whittaker, “The Poor in the City of Rome,” in Land,
City and Trade in the Roman Empire (Aldershot: Variorum Ashgate, 1993); however, Lon-
genecker notes: “when compiling his percentages for ES7 and ES6, Friesen has simply
applied Whittaker’s upper estimates in each case” (p. 319). Longenecker uses Whittaker’s
lower estimates, giving the category of the poorest (ES7 and ES6) 13% less than Friesen.
Since the middling group is determined by the “leftover” from ES1-ES3 and ES6-ES7, then
Longenecker’s estimate of the middling class (ES4-ES5) is 42%, higher than Friesen’s 29%.
Furthermore, Longenecker argues Friesen shifts most of the 29% into the poorer side of
the middling class, leaving only 7% to ES4 “because of the endemic character of poverty
in the Roman empire, because of structural impediments in the economy, and because
of the large amounts of wealth required to move up the poverty scale” (Friesen, “Poverty
in Pauline Studies,” 346).
54 Richards

Paul fell in relation to Seneca, placing Paul within the ES5, the lower middling
class, or possibly ES4, the upper middling class.24 Whether Paul was in ES5 or
even ES4, a vast economic chasm existed between Paul and Seneca. They lived
in different worlds.25
In addition to economic differences, Paul and Seneca were ethnically differ-
ent. While it is virtually a tautology to state that Paul was Jewish,26 the Lukan
Paul was clearly portrayed as the victim of racism on several occasions. The

24 Using this scale compiled from Longenecker, Remember the Poor, 46, 53:

Friesen Longenecker

ES1-ES3 (the wealthy classes) 3% 3%

ES4 (the upper middling class) 7% 15%
ES5 (the lower middling class) 22% 27%
ES6 (the subsistent poor) 40% 30%
ES7 (the desperately poor) 28% 25%

Longenecker argues that Paul’s communities were a mix of groups: ES4 (Erastus, Gaius,
Phoebe); ES4 or ES5 (Stephanus, Philemon, Crispus); ES5 or ES6 (Prisca, Aquila). While
careful not to presume prosopographic reconstructions where the data is too slim, such
as Chloe, Nympha, or even Philemon, Longenecker suggests the following economic pro-
file (295):

“Urban Jesus-Groups”

E S1-E S3 (the wealthy class) 0%

E S4 (the upper middling class) 10%
E S5 (the lower middling class) 25%
E S6-E S7 65%

He does not suggest this is a “template” for any particular congregation; rather, Longe-
necker posits Paul “would have sensed the overall advantages of building communities
around the ES4 households wherever possible” (296-97). He notes voluntary associations
were largely ES4-ES5 (77-80).
25 So Seneca gave up oysters and mushrooms because “they are not really food, but are
relishes to bully the sated stomach into further eating” (108.15), while Paul knew hunger
(Phil 4:12; 2 Cor 6:5). Although both men discussed restrictions on eating meat, Seneca
abstained for his own conscience (108.20-23), while Paul argued for the conscience of
another (2 Cor 10:28-29). Griffin criticizes scholars who attempt to infer details of Seneca’s
life from his letters, but she does accept this fact as historical (Seneca, 42).
26 It is beyond the purview of this little essay to discuss the anachronism of translating
Ἰουδαιος as “Jew” instead of “Judean.” We may note the epistolary Paul describes himself
as an Israelite (Rom 11:1; 2 Cor 11:22), which encompasses Judean, Galilean, Idumean,
Some Observations on Paul and Seneca as Letter Writers 55

Edict of Claudius at least displayed and probably promoted discrimination

against Jews. Paul and Seneca would have been viewed/received quite differ-
ently, even if they had shared a similar economic status, which they certainly
did not.

2.3 Educational Differences

Paul enjoyed a relatively high educational status; nonetheless, it compares un-
favorably with a private tutor of an emperor. Their educational differences,
however, should be less pronounced in letter writing than in speeches or es-
says, due to the mediating influences of a secretary. While the content and
rhetoric should be more elite in Seneca, stylistic elements should be diluted
by secretarial practices. The noted authorities on Cicero’s letters, Tyrrell and
Purser, demonstrated that while some letters of Cicero were truly analogous
in style with Cicero’s speeches, many others, notably his letters to his friends,
were more similar in style to the letters of other writers than to Cicero’s own
orations.27 Because Seneca made no explicit references to using a secretary,
comments by Seneca, like “I was just intending to stop, and my hand was mak-
ing ready for the closing sentence,” have been interpreted by some scholars28
as an indication that Seneca wrote the letters in his own hand. This is unlikely.
First, this particular expression is shrouded in rhetoric and is more likely re-
ferring to the end of his life rather than the end of the letter. Second, ancients
used secretaries; it was standard practice.29 Third, better arguments may be
made that Seneca dictated rather than wrote in his own hand. For example, he
advised Lucilius not to spend all his time “bending over your books and writing
materials. . . . Riding in a litter shakes up the body, and does not interfere with

and Samaritan. See, e.g., Steve Mason, “Jews, Judaeans, Judaizing, Judaism: Problems of
Categorization in Ancient History,” Journal for the Study of Judaism 38 (2007): 457-512,
and the discussion in Reinhard Pummer, The Samaritans in Flavius Josephus (Texts and
Studies in Ancient Judaism 129; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2009).
27 Tyrrell and Purser, Cicero, 2:LXIX-LXX. Similarly, Tadeusz Zieliński demonstrated what
is often considered the most precise measure yet determined for Ciceronian style, his
celebrated law of clause-endings. It is remarkably accurate. Tyrrell and Purser (Cicero,
2:LXVI-LXVII n*) assert it can be used to decide between variant readings. Yet, Cicero’s fa-
miliar letters show no more significant compliance to the clause-endings than do letters
of another writer. See T. Zieliński, Das Clauselgesetz in Ciceros Reden: Grundzüge enier or-
atorischen Rhythmik (Philologus, Supplementband, no. XIII, 1a; Leipzig: Dieterich, 1904);
or see Tyrrell and Purser, Cicero, 2:LXVII n.
28 E.g., Gordon J. Bahr, “Paul and Letter Writing in the First Century,” Catholic Biblical Quar-
terly 28 (1966): 465-77 at 468.
29 I have made this argument extensively elsewhere. See Richards, Secretary, 15-23.
56 Richards

study. One may read, dictate [dictare], converse or listen to another” (15.6).30
Lastly, Seneca elsewhere argued Tiberius wrote “in his own hand orders which
he believed he ought not to trust even to officials of his household.” (83.15). An-
cients sometimes avoided a secretary to maintain secrecy.31 Clearly, Seneca’s
letters do not qualify; he was writing to be public (106.2; 108.1). We may suspect
then that Seneca took a more controlling hand in his “letters,” even to dictating
them. Thus, the educational gap is more pronounced as Seneca’s letters retain
their rhetoric (guised in colloquialisms),32 while secretarial mediation diluted
further the impact of Paul’s education on his letters.

3 The Problem of Letter Collections

Besides their significant linguistic, ethnic, economic, and educational differ-

ences, for both men, we do not have their original dispatched letters (if Seneca
had any) but rather copies of collections. The very nature of a collection intro-
duces the possibility of further editing from their original state.

3.1 The Collection of Seneca’s Letters

Seneca’s letters were written after 62 C.E. and before his death in 65. The col-
lection is incomplete. We have 20 books, yet Aulus Gellius (Noct. att. 12.2)
quotes a long passage from book 22. It is debated if one or more books
were lost from the end or, as Reynolds suggests, perhaps there was a vol-
ume originally between letters 88 and 89.33 Whether letters in their edited
state are the imagined correspondence with a fictitious recipient or the heav-
ily edited correspondence with an actual recipient, the letters are presented
as correspondence that was already heading toward a collection: “The matter

30 “Reading” probably meant having a lector read. See also 29.6, where Aristo does the same,
editing in a carriage. Dictation was done two different ways, either rapidly with the use of
a notarius, shorthand writer (if one were available) or very slowly (40.9-10). For shorthand
writers, see Richards, Secretary, 26-43.
31 Richards, Secretary, 88-90. Note Cicero’s comments: “But here I take the pen myself; for
I shall have to deal with confidential matters!” (Att. 11.24) and “For our letters. . .are full of
secrets that we cannot even trust an amanuensis as a rule” (4.17.1).
32 Coleman notes Seneca’s “highly wrought and carefully calculated style” (“Artful Moralist,”
33 The oldest collections were in two volumes, 1-88 and 89-124. See L.D. Reynolds, The Me-
dieval Tradition of Seneca’s Letters (London: Oxford University Press, 1965), 17.
Some Observations on Paul and Seneca as Letter Writers 57

about which you consulted me was being gathered into the fabric of my vol-
ume.”34 Cancik made a compelling argument that the letters were arranged
for pedagogical purposes,35 suggesting a progressive development in Lucil-
ius’ moral character,36 removing the collection even further from any pos-
sible original epistolary exchange. Determining the Tendenz of the arrange-
ment is outside this paper, we need note only this additional layer of edit-

3.2 The Collection of Paul’s Letters

The three common theories of how Paul’s letters were collected are the “snow-
ball theory” (where Paul’s letters were gradually collected), the “big bang the-
ory” (where a person took the initiative to circulate around to collect Paul’s
letters), and the “happenstance theory” (where no initiative was taken; the
collection arose from Paul’s personal set of copies).37 All three theories al-
low for the editorial selection of letters. The first two theories might suggest a
more deliberate process, while in the third, Paul initially chose which letters
to retain. It would be impossible to know if he retained copies with an eye
toward publication, which seems quite unlikely, or if the vagaries of his sit-
uation determined if there was opportunity to retain a copy. In any of these
theories, however, Paul’s letters display far less editing as a collection than

3.3 Epistolary Edits within Paul’s Collection

The best indicator of editing is the letters themselves. While Paul’s letters omit
the original delivery address (such as would be written on the outside of a
folded or rolled letter), his letters seem to retain most of their epistolary struc-
ture. Paul’s letters retain an epistolary prescript and postscript. However, Paul’s
prescripts deviate from epistolary convention in just about every way. They are

34 Ep. 105.1-2. Gummere notes here: “Presumably (cf. Ep. cviii §1) into this collection of Epis-
tles” (217, n. a).
35 Hildegard Cancik-Lindemaier, Untersuchungen zu Senecas Epistulae morale (Spudasmata
18; Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1967), 74.
36 Roy Gibson, “On the Nature of Ancient Letter Collections,” The Journal of Roman Stud-
ies 102 (2012): 56-78. Inwood notes that it is common among Seneca scholars to see the
collection as arranged “to emphasize the apparent ‘moral progress’ of Lucilius” (“Intro-
duction,” xv).
37 Richards, “The Codex and the Early Collection of Paul’s Letters,” Bulletin for Biblical Re-
search 8 (1998): 151-66 (my terms).
58 Richards

longer, more elaborate, and unconventional.38 They bear no marks of an editor

attempting to conform them to convention.
Paul’s postscripts follow a bit more closely epistolary convention. His letters
have no dates, but appending a date was not universal practice. His letters con-
tain occasioned comments and greetings (of all three types: first, second, and
third person). It is difficult to imagine a collection editor who would remove
other elements but leave these, again suggesting Paul’s letters received little or
no editing when collected.

3.4 Epistolary Edits within Seneca’s Collection

In contrast to Paul, if the letters of Seneca were ever missives – a debated issue
– their present state maintains only the barest remains of epistolary garb and
appears edited to remove the more occasioned elements.39 If the letters began
as epistles, Seneca’s epistolary prescripts appear highly edited and contain the
barest minimum of sender to addressee, greeting. The letter opening, “Seneca
Lucilio suo salutem” (“Seneca [wishes/prays] health to his Lucilius”), tempts
many modern commentators to suggest there is some hint of genuineness to
the phrase: “it is easy to imagine Seneca being aware at some level that these
standard formulae do in fact wish Lucilius health and strength, a sentiment he
surely feels for his friend.”40 While Seneca was perhaps fond of Lucilius, this
standard opening was merely Latin letter writing convention, a façon de parler.
Our modern phrases “Dear . . .” and “Sincerely, . . .” are comparable. We may or
may not feel dearly about the recipient nor be sincere in our contents.
In Seneca’s prescripts, the names are reduced to the cognomen of the Ro-
man tri-partite name, with no elaboration; all other parts of the prescript are
missing. Here we find Cicero’s letters to Atticus to be the most comparable:
Cicero Attico salutem. Perhaps the address is abbreviated because of frequent
letter exchange or edited for the collection. We note the parallel letters of Ci-
cero to his friends, or more significantly, the ones from his friends to Cicero
are not as abbreviated as Seneca’s. For example, Brutus’ letter to Cicero opens
with M. BRUTUS S. D. M. CICERONI. The praenomen was commonly abbre-
viated, in this case Marcus, as was the common greeting salutem plurimam

38 See Richards, “Pauline Prescripts and Greco-Roman Epistolary Convention,” in Christian

Origins and Greco-Roman Culture: Social and Literary Contexts for the New Testament (ed.
Stanley Porter and Andrew Pitts; The New Testament in its Hellenistic Context 1; Leiden:
Brill, 2012), 497-514.
39 John Schafer, “Dramatized Education,” 32. He is too optimistic when he states some of
Seneca’s letters are “overtly epistolary.” He cites, though, the prescripts and postscripts.
40 Inwood, “Introduction,” xxiv.
Some Observations on Paul and Seneca as Letter Writers 59

dicit, S. P. D., with plurimam commonly omitted, as was dicit, thus S. D., or
even SERVIUS CICERONI S. “Sometimes the name of the writer was placed
first, and sometimes that of the person addressed; the names might be abbre-
viated in various ways, or denoted simply by the initials.”41 Thus Paul’s use of
the singular name (likely his cognomen) is not unusual.
The other elements of an epistolary prescript are missing in Seneca. We
find no traditional comments upon the recipient’s health.42 After the basic let-
ter address, “there usually followed the complimentary phrase, Si vales, bene
est. Ego valeo (“If you are in good health, it is well. I am in health”).43 These
were so standardized in Latin letter writing, it was commonly abbreviated
(S.V.B.E.E.V.), including accompanying adjectives. Barthemo provides an ex-
ample that can “hardly be surpassed, in its egotistic display of titles and its cer-
emonious politeness”: M. Lepidus Imp. Iter. Pont. Max. S.P.D. Senat. Pop.Pl.Q.R.
S.V. liberique vestri V.B.E.E.Q.V.44 Seneca has none of this, but it is not difficult to
imagine these being edited out. Paul on the other hand modifies and expands
the standardized chairein,45 as well as adding more nonstandard elaboration
than other letter writers.
There is another element within Seneca’s letters that might suggest at first
glance actual correspondence. Seneca makes reference to the recipient’s pre-

41 Barthemo, “Forms of Salutation, Part III: Among the Romans,” The Dartmouth 3/10 (1869):
380-85 at 382.
42 Seneca’s opening, “From my villa in Nomentum, I send you greetings and bid you keep
a sound spirit within you” (110.1), was the closest I could find to a traditional greeting
and well-wish in Seneca and might have qualified, except we see that he was setting up a
discussion of what constitutes the blessing of the gods.
43 Barthemo, “Salutation,” 382. Clearly Seneca knows the prescript formulae: “The old Ro-
mans had a custom which survived even into my lifetime. They would add to the opening
words of a letter: ‘If you are well, it is well; I also am well’” (15.1). Seneca then makes his
rhetorical argument. His dismissive tone toward this traditional opening would easily ex-
plain why he would edit it out, if he ever used it at all. See also where Seneca belittles
comments on the weather and “all the other trivialities which people write when they
are at a loss for topics of conversation” (23.1).
44 Barthemo, “Salutation,” 382.
45 Hans-Josef Klauck, Ancient Letters and the New Testament: A Guide to Context and Exegesis
(Waco: Baylor University Press, 2006), 18-19. Klauck offers the best explanation (at least,
that I have heard) for why ancients used the infinitival form. His book is the best study of
Greco-Roman epistolography currently available to NT scholars, supplanting (in my opin-
ion) Otto Roller’s work, Das Formular der paulinischen Briefe: ein Beitrag zur Lehre von an-
tiken Briefe (ed. Albrecht Alt and Gerhard Kittel; BWANT 4/6; Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer,
60 Richards

vious letter, as was custom among those who exchanged frequent letters.46
For example, Seneca opens a letter with “Seneca to Lucilius, greetings to you.
In answer to the letter which you wrote me while traveling – a letter as long
as the journey itself – I shall reply later” (48.1). Yet, it is not clear whether
this is a remnant of the original epistolary situation or a creation by Seneca.
This common custom enabled the recipient to know if an intervening letter
had gone missing. Cicero wrote to his brother Quintus a long letter com-
posed over several sittings. As he dictated the letter,47 he responded to a
series of letters he had received from his brother. After discussing business
at home, he states “I come now to your letters, . . . I have answered your
longest letter; now hear what I say about your very little one . . . I come
to your third letter . . . your fourth letter . . . I have also received a very
old letter.”48 Likewise, Paul notes, “Now for the matters you wrote about:
‘It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman’” (1 Cor
7:1). Noting that one is responding to a letter was common epistolary prac-
Seneca’s letters make reference to everyday events, which could suggest gen-
uine correspondence and less editing, but his mention of some event like an
illness or a chance encounter is used to launch into philosophical discussion
(10.1). The event, whether created or recalled, was the illustration for his point.
He tells the story of Crates, the disciple of Stilbo, who chances upon a youth
walking by himself. The story is used to teach.50 Seneca uses his own encoun-
ters in the same way. They are merely exempla.51 We do not find elements in
Seneca’s letters that seem incidental, again suggesting his letters were heavily

46 Schafer, “Dramatized Education,” 32. He cites this as an epistolary sign.

47 Cicero does not explicitly state this, but he notes a later section was then composed in
his own hand: “After I had written these last words, which are in my own hand, your son
Cicero came in and had dinner with me” (Quint. fratr. 3.1.19).
48 Quint. fratr. 3.1.
49 I did not find references in Seneca to responding to multiple letters. Seneca more com-
monly refers back to his own letters (75.8; 76.7, 26).
50 Seneca states that he heaps up illustrations for the purpose of encouraging Lucilius (24.9).
51 See Roland G. Mayer, “Roman Historical Exempla in Seneca,” in Seneca (ed. John G.
Fitch; Oxford Readings in Classical Studies; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008),
52 With genuine letters, Schafer notes “inconsistency becomes not only tolerable but, at
some point, expected: anyone who regularly deals in pontificating will at some point
self-contradict (or else be a terrible bore)” (“Dramatized Education,” 47). Schafer thinks
Some Observations on Paul and Seneca as Letter Writers 61

Postscripts occasionally summarized all or part of a letter.53 While Paul does

this rather often,54 I found only one instance in Seneca (99.32). This example
is further complicated because most of this epistle is a copy (purportedly) of
a letter Seneca had sent to Marullus (99.1), including this postscript. Seneca’s
comment elsewhere, “But I must end my letter” (4.10) gives an initial impres-
sion of a postscript, being vaguely similar to the more common formula, but
the content afterwards does not resemble a postscript.55 No marks of an occa-
sional nature are found at the end of his letters. I found no greetings. In fact, in
contrast to Paul, the letters of Seneca have no real postscripts, only a minimal-
ist vale. In contrast, Paul often introduces his postscripts with the standardized
reference to writing in his own hand.
Seneca speaks against editing letters. In commending the work of another,
Seneca notes,

A meticulous manner of writing does not suit a philosopher. . . . Fabi-

anus’s style was not careless, it was assured . . . his words are well chosen
and yet not hunted for. . . . We shall of course notice passages that are not
sufficiently pruned, not constructed with sufficient care, and lacking the
polish which is in vogue nowadays. (100.4-6)

Seneca prefers this style as more “oral.” Yet, this is also a ruse. His letters suggest
extensive editing, while Paul’s letters evidence little or no editing as a collec-
tion. We must exercise additional caution in comparing them as letter writers
because of the variance in editing.

4 A Preliminary Comparison of Paul and Seneca as Letter Writers

Although Paul and Seneca are so very different, despite being Roman citizens
and letter writers from almost precisely the same period of history, some ob-
servations may be helpful.

Seneca’s contradictions are a carefully crafted literary device to simulate genuine corre-
53 Although most commonly in business records. See Richards, Secretary, 81-90.
54 See Gordon J. Bahr, “The Subscriptions in the Pauline Letters,” JBL 87 (1968): 27-41; also
Richards, Secretary, 176-81.
55 The same is true for similar remarks: “But my letter calls for its closing sentence” (11.8). His
solitary reference to a month is for a rhetorical purpose and not dating (86.16). Seneca’s
comment about a letter from Lucilius arriving “many months after you had posted it”
(50.1) suggests that Lucilius’ letter had a date.
62 Richards

4.1 Private vs. Public (The Old Deissmann Debate)

Late nineteenth century philologists debated how Paul’s letters compared with
Greek literary letters, such as those of Plato and Isocrates (some of which are
genuine), Aristotle, Demosthenes and Epicurus. While some scholars56 con-
sidered Paul one of the great letter writers of antiquity, others57 compared
Paul very unfavorably with rhetoricians like Seneca. After the initial euphoria
of discovering the papyri in the sands of Egypt, scholars quickly noted how dis-
similar these papyrus letters were from those of Cicero, Quintilian, Seneca, and
other Roman aristocrats and how similar the vocabulary of these papyri was to
Paul’s letters. Adolf Deissmann drew a strong distinction between these highly
occasioned papyrus letters (which he called Briefe) and the artificial, artistic
literary epistles, such as Seneca’s (which he called Episteln).58 The Briefe were
natural, daily, situational letters, intended to be read by no one but the re-
cipient. The Episteln, although addressed to an individual, usually a friend or
patron, were really written for anyone willing and able to read them with the
real purpose of persuading the general public to a particular viewpoint. In sub-
sequent decades, Deissmann was critiqued as making too artificial a distinc-
tion.59 More recently, though, Hans-Josef Klauck cautioned that Deissmann’s
distinction while perhaps overstated is still useful, recognizing “transitional
categories.”60 In this way, we would see ancient letters as a spectrum from very
public, long, artificial essays to the highly occasioned, short, private letters.
Seneca would be a fine if not the finest example of the Episteln endpoint to
this spectrum, but Paul is difficult to classify, being neither Epistel nor Brief.
Even a more generic comparison, public versus private, is challenging.
Seneca’s letters are portrayed as very personal correspondence, although
scholars generally agree the letters were intended for a broad if not public
audience. Ironically, Paul’s letters within his collection are portrayed as less
personal. They are sometimes from a team (Galatians; First and Second Thes-
salonians), often with a co-sender (First and Second Corinthians; Philippians;

56 E.g., Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, Antigonos von Karystos (Philologische Un-

tersuchungen 4; Berlin: Weidmann, 1881); Martin Dibelius, An Philemon (3d ed.; ed.
H. Breeven; HNT; Tübingen: Mohr, 1953).
57 E.g., Paul Wendland, Die hellenistische-römische Kultur in ihren Beziehungen zu Judentum
und Christentum (2d ed.; Tübingen: Mohr, 1912). Eduard Norden described Paul’s style as
totally “unhellenic” (Die antike Kunstprosa [2 vols.; Leipzig: Weidmann, 1958], 1:499).
58 Deissmann, Light from the Ancient Near East: The New Testament Illustrated by Recently
Discovered Texts of the Graeco-Roman World (trans. Lionel R.M. Strachan; London: Hodder
& Stoughton, 1910), 290-301.
59 Cf. Richards, Secretary, 211-16.
60 Klauck, Ancient Letters, 70.
Some Observations on Paul and Seneca as Letter Writers 63

Colossians; Philemon), and are usually addressed to a community. Yet, Paul’s

letters should be read as more personal than the epistles of Seneca. Thus,
we cannot simplistically label one writer as composing public letters and the
other private ones.

4.2 Epistolary Formulae and Epistolary Rhetoric

Greco-Roman letter writing was far more standardized than today’s custom.
We cannot compare actual linguistic parallels, since one writes in Greek and
the other in Latin, but we should be able to compare uses of common Greco-
Roman epistolary formulae and rhetoric. In a letter replying to Cornificius, we
note Cicero’s use of a recurring de . . . de . . . and are struck by a similar pattern
when Paul is replying to a series of questions from Corinth.61 But this pattern
was not seen in Seneca. Other scholars have noted Paul’s regular use of stan-
dardized epistolary formulae, such as disclosure, petition, joy, astonishment,
compliance, report, thanksgiving, and greeting.62 While you can find such for-
mulae in the inauthentic letters of Seneca to Paul,63 they are rare or absent
in the 124 letters of Seneca.64 For instance, Seneca expresses joy at receiving a
letter from Lucilius – a common and understandable sentiment, but it is not
with the traditional formula.65 Seneca’s brief remark of joy is in stark contrast
to Paul’s thanksgivings, which are more frequent and longer than any known
in antiquity. While not alike, both writers share in common that the joy is from
the recipient’s faithfulness to their teaching, rather than the common episto-
lary cause of health or prosperity.
Seneca used diatribe elements to persuade Lucilius (or the readers stand-
ing behind him). The diatribe did not use highly structured arguments, with a
subordination of logical relationships, but rather moved along by a question
and then the answer, a command followed by a question (or statement), or
some combination of these. The diatribe created a lively conversational tone
(as if “you and I were sitting”) with a flowing style, often of short sentences.
The diatribe was used not for technical discourse but rather for preaching, to
persuade the common man on the street to some philosophical or moral po-
sition. Its goal was not enlightenment but conversion. German scholarship of

61 Cicero, Fam. 12.30.

62 See, e.g., the appendices in Richards, Secretary, 204-06.
63 These fourteen letters from the third or fourth century are “shot through . . . with episto-
lary conventions” and formulae (Malherbe, “‘Seneca’ on Paul,” 418).
64 Actually, I found none in my quick reading.
65 Ep. 19.1.
64 Richards

the late 1800’s argued that the diatribe was an established genre66 and Bult-
mann argued that Paul used it, although in an unconscious and unintentional
imitation.67 We note a shared format and vocabulary with Epictetus:

“What then [τί οὖν], would anybody have you dress out to the utmost? By
no means [μὴ γένοιτο], except . . .” (Diatr. 4.11.5)

“What then [τί οὖν], should we sin because we are not under the law but
under grace? By no means [μὴ γένοιτο], do you not know . . .” (Rom 6:15)

Likewise, Seneca opens: “Do you conclude that you are having difficulties with
those men about whom you wrote to me? Your greatest difficulty is with your-
self” (21.1). Most read this as an imaginary interlocutor and not that Seneca
was responding to an issue.68 The examples in Seneca are numerous (e.g.,
88.39-46);69 the LCL translator even labels the questioner an “objector” (121.14).
So we find in Seneca, “What then is reason? [Quid est ergo ratio?] . . . By no
means [Minime]” (66.39-40). With the LCL translation, the parallel in Seneca
may seem more pronounced than it is.70 We observe both Paul and Seneca use
the popular style of the interlocutor, but the linguistic gap prevents drawing
more conclusions.
Both men use tribulation lists, as was common in Greco-Roman letter writ-
ing.71 Paul’s lists (e.g., 2 Cor 11:23-28) conform more closely to the standard
pattern, but the example I found in Seneca did not (107.7). Also, Seneca’s list
includes those common to man or what might happen to man, while Paul lists
personal tribulations. I found one list in the 124 letters of Seneca and at least

66 The issue remains fairly hotly debated as seen by the reprint of Karl Donfried, The Romans
Debate (rev. exp. ed.; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1991). Thomas Schmeller debates the
very existence of an established form called the diatribe (Paulus und die “Diatribe”: Eine
vergleichende Stilinterpretation [NTAbh 19; Munich: Aschendorfsche, 1987]).
67 See the discussion by Stan Stowers, The Diatribe and Paul’s Letter to the Romans (SBLDS
57; Chico: Scholars, 1981), 18-19.
68 So Anna Lydia Motto, Seneca Sourcebook: A Guide to the Thought of Lucius Annaeus Seneca
(Amsterdam: Adolf M. Hakkert, 1970).
69 Gummere, LCL, 1:xii, n1. See, e.g., 9.22 and 65.9, 14. So also Elaine Fantham, Selected Letters
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 299.
70 Coleman also notes “there is little concrete evidence for specific debt in subject matter
or verbal presentation” to connect Seneca to other authors’ use of the diatribe (“Artful
Moralist,” 287).
71 See Robert Hodgson, “Paul the Apostle and First Century Tribulation Lists,” ZNW 74 (1983):
1-2, 59-80.
Some Observations on Paul and Seneca as Letter Writers 65

eight in the 13 letters of Paul.72 So, Paul made frequent use and followed the
common pattern, while tribulation lists were rare and atypical in Seneca.
Chiasmus can be seen in classical Latin literature,73 but chiasmus was
falling out of use in the first century. Most examples in Latin are composed
of only pairs of words.74 In Cicero’s works, chiasmus appears in those that
were carefully written. “In those epistles of Cicero which were most freely and
rapidly written chiasmus does not often occur.”75 The same restriction applies
to the letters of Pliny.76 In Seneca, chiasmus is rare.77 Paul, on the other hand,
uses chiasmus more often, and in more complex structure than was typical in
the literature of the first century.78 They do not share a love for chiasmus.79

4.3 Epistolary Traits

We may make a few other epistolary observations. Both quote unnamed poets
(9.21; 1 Cor 15:33). Both encourage their recipient(s) to read a specific letter
(22.5; Col 4:16).80 Both note how being present with the recipient(s) would be
better than a letter (22.1; Col 2:5). Paul conducts business from prison (Eph
6:20; Phil 1:7; Col 4:18; Phlm 10) and Seneca likewise presents prison as no
hindrance to Socrates (24.4). Both apparently kept copies of dispatched letters,

72 We may note that Paul includes “concern for the churches” in his list of tribulations
(2 Cor 11:28). Also, see Paul’s lists in Rom 8:35; 2 Cor 6:4-5; 12:10; his antithetical lists in
1 Cor 4:10-13; 2 Cor 4:8-9; 6:8-10; Phil. 4:12. For a defense of a Pauline corpus of 13 letters,
see e.g., Luke Timothy Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament (3d. ed.; Minneapolis:
Fortress, 2010) or Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction (rev. ed.; Downers Grove:
IVP Academic, 1990).
73 R.B. Steele lists 1,257 examples of chiasmus in Livy (“Anaphora and Chiasmus in Livy,”
TAPA 32 [1901]: 166). There are 211 examples in Sallust, 365 in Caesar, 1,088 in Tacitus,
and 307 in Justinus. Idem, Chiasmus in Sallust, Caesar, Tacitus and Justinus (Northfield:
Independent Publishing Co., 1891), 4-5.
74 Steele, “Anaphora,” 185.
75 R.B. Steele, “Chiasmus in the Epistles of Cicero, Seneca, Pliny and Fronto,” in Studies in
Honor of B.L. Gildersleeve (ed. C.A. Briggs; Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1902), 339-52.
76 Ibid., 346-47.
77 Ibid., 342.
78 See, e.g., J. Jeremias, “Chiasmus in den Paulusbriefen,” ZNW 49 (1958): 139-56.
79 Coleman suggests there is a chiastic progression of themes in Ep. 115, but it is not clear to
me (“Artful Moralist,” 285).
80 Cf. Cicero, Att. 4.6: “Take care that you get from Lucceius the letter I sent him.” We may
deduce that sharing letters was not uncommon. See Cicero, Fam. 7.29.2, where Curius
specifically asks Cicero not to let Atticus read that particular letter, or Att. 1.16, where
Cicero requests the same discretion of Atticus.
66 Richards

since they repeat material used in a letter to another.81 Both write letters to
respond to questions (e.g., 113.1; 1 Cor 7:1).
While they share these in common, they often differ both in content and
also in how they discuss them. For example, both discuss shipwrecks, Seneca
elaborates while Paul is dismissive (cf. 53.1-5; 2 Cor 11:25). Both discuss wasting
away a little more every day, but Seneca considers it “trifling” (26.4-5) and in-
evitable (120.17), actually desirable (102.28), and a safe harbor (70.4-6), while
Paul lists it in a tribulation list (2 Cor 6:4-10). Both men agree that doing the
right thing can result in being labeled a fool (71.7; 1 Cor 1:20-23). Both refer to
a “yoke” but for Seneca vices must accept our yoke (69.5) and for Paul Torah
is a yoke we should not accept (Gal 5:1). Both believe the earth is destined to
be consumed but God is still at work (71.13-14; Rom 9:19-29). Both men deride
cleverness in words for its own sake (75.3-7; 1 Cor 2:3-5), although both are
clever wordsmiths. But as letter writers from the same world region and time
period, these similarities likely merely reflect the zeitgeist of the first-century
Roman world.

4.4 Frequency of Letter Writing

Seneca notes that traveling discouraged serious writing; he needed to stay for
a length of time in one place (72.2).82 For a man of Seneca’s means, this was
not for a lack of supplies. Even when traveling light, taking “no parapherna-
lia except what we wore on our persons,” we see that he still had a few slaves
and “writing tablets” (87.2). Likewise, his one comment about writing at night
(123.1) reflects his wealth and leisure and was meant to chastise his cook for
tardiness, as if to say “you are so slow I had time to write.” The rigors of travel-
ing likely impacted Paul’s letter writing schedule as well.83
While merely counting letters over a period of time obscures historical fac-
tors like the occasions that precipitate letters and the living situation of the

81 To know this, we must have a comment by the letter writer or possess both letters. Ep. 99
remarks that it includes a copy of a letter to Marullus and Ephesians reuses a lot of
material from Colossians. Cf. Cicero mentions it (Att. 3.9; 16.6), mentions another doing it
(13.29), and we can see Cicero doing it (Fam. 10.28.1; 12.4.1). If Seneca’s correspondence is
fictive, we may at least conclude that he presents as reasonable the idea of having copies
of other letters (45.2). I discuss Paul’s custom elsewhere at length. See, e.g., Richards,
“Codex,” 151-66.
82 This is not singular to Seneca. Cf. Cicero: “You must not expect long letters from me nor
always letters in my own handwriting; till I have settled down somewhere. . . . I am now
engaged on a hot and dusty journey” (Att. 5.14).
83 See the discussion in Richards, Letter Writing, 23-46.
Some Observations on Paul and Seneca as Letter Writers 67

author, the disparity in frequency is still worth noting. Using the generally
accepted span of three years (62-65 C.E.), Seneca wrote at least 124 letters.
Whether or not these were actual missives, Seneca presents himself as writing
at this frequency. It is not an unreasonable scenario. Cicero wrote even more
frequently. Assuming the most generous Corpus Paulinum, including the two
so-called lost letters to Corinth (1 Cor 5:9; 2 Cor 7:8),84 we can count up to
fifteen letters over a fifteen-year period.85 Seneca presents himself as writing
about forty letters a year, while Paul wrote about one a year. When we restrict
the comparison to Paul’s time under Roman confinement, we can increase
Paul’s frequency to about two letters a year. In any comparison, Seneca was a
far more frequent letter writer than Paul. The contrast seems significant.
Leisure and means likely explains Seneca’s frequency. If his letters were ever
missives, then we should also note he lived in close proximity to Lucilius. This
allowed letter carriers to travel even outside of traditional traveling season.
The seasonal limits for land and sea travel did not apply to local travel on the
lower Italian peninsula. Seneca noted that sea travel would delay a letter (71.1).
Likewise, Cicero exchanged frequent letters over a short geographical distance.
Close geographical proximity allowed a faster exchange of correspondence. It
may be worth comparing the one time Paul corresponded with a congrega-
tion nearby: letters to Corinth while living in Ephesus. Scholars commonly
assert Paul wrote at least four letters within two years. While this is still far less
frequent than Seneca, it is more frequent than was Paul’s custom. Frequent
traveling by Paul and the greater distances for his letters would at least partly
account for fewer letters. Nonetheless, I suggest the expense (including letter
carriers) was a more significant deterrent for Paul.86

4.5 Length of Letters

In the approximately 14,000 papyrus letters from Greco-Roman antiquity, the
average length was about 87 words, ranging in length from 18-209 words.
Seneca’s letters were long, even among the great letter writers of antiquity.
Seneca recognizes his letters could be long: “I must not exceed the bounds of

84 One could perhaps be more generous by adding an additional letter to Thessalonica or to

Laodicea (Col 4:7), but I will already be critiqued for being too generous.
85 Obviously, this assumes an early date for Galatians and places the Pastorals in Paul’s
hands and in a second Roman imprisonment. With a late date for Galatians and removing
the Pastorals, we have twelve letters over a ten-year span. This still places Paul at about
one letter a year.
86 Seneca alludes to the cost of dispatching a letter (26.8) suggesting a significant expense
(even though this expression was likely rhetoric referring to his death).
68 Richards

a letter, which ought not to fill the reader’s left hand” (45.13). This letter had
740 words, which would fill a standard charta (unit of sale for a papyrus roll)
and may indicate more the limitation that Seneca was feeling. His two longest
letters are considerably longer than his others, being nearly 50% longer than
his third longest and more than three times his average. He describes one of
these two as “a huge letter” (95.3).87 Seneca’s five longest letters were: 94 (4,201
words), 95 (4,105 words), 66 (3,006 words), 90 (2,971 words), and 88 (2,521
words); his five shortest were: 62 (150 words), 38 (163 words), 112 (170 words),
34 (185 words), and 46 (193 words), with an average of 972 words.88 Although
Seneca wrote exceptionally long letters, nonetheless, we see that Paul stands
apart from all other ancient letter writers.
Shortest Letter Longest Letter Average Length

Cicero 22 words 2,530 words 295 words

Seneca 150 words 4,201 words 972 words
Paul 334 words 7,085 words 2,487 words89
Beyond merely blaming the verbosity of Paul, the disparity in length may be
lessened, when we consider that Seneca presented himself as dispatching his
letters frequently (118.1), while Paul held on to his. At least some of Paul’s let-
ters may contain a shift where time has elapsed.90 Seneca is portrayed as dis-
patching separate letters.91 Frequent exchanges of letters, and thus a routine
circulation of letter carriers, encouraged the swift ending of a letter. Cicero

87 He argues for a full discussion: “the result will be a book, instead of a letter” (85.1). He
commends Lucilius for a letter where he had his “words under control,” perhaps meaning
brevity. Elsewhere, Seneca denounces the Annals of Tanusius as “bulky” (93.11), perhaps
ironically in the letter preceding his longest letter (94).
88 I am grateful to my graduate assistant, Caleb Garrett, for painstakingly counting the
words in all 124 letters. According to his count, Seneca’s mean is 972 and median is 732.
For Paul, his mean is 2,487 and median is 1,591.
89 The numbers for Cicero are from Alfred Wikenhauser and Josef Schmid, Einleitung in das
Neue Testament (Freiburg: Herder, 1973), 245. I slightly lowered his numbers for Seneca
and Paul to match my own count.
90 The shift at 2 Cor 10 has been credited to numerous causes, such as writing in his own
hand (so Feine-Behm, Bates, and Dibelius), the receipt of new information (so R.M.
Grant, Harrington, Jülicher-Fascher, Price, and Munck), a sleepless night (so Lietzmann),
or a sudden change of mind (so Guthrie). See W. Georg Kümmel, Introduction to the New
Testament (rev. ed.; trans. H.C. Kee; Nashville: Abingdon, 1975), 289-90.
91 There is one apparent exception in Seneca: “I was just putting the seal upon this letter; but
it must be broken again, in order that it may go to you with its customary contribution,
Some Observations on Paul and Seneca as Letter Writers 69

complained in a letter to Cassius that he had been rushed to finish so that

the carrier could be on his way (Fam. 15.17.1-2). Because Paul’s letter carriers
were required to traverse longer distances, the carrier may have often needed
to await the opening of traveling season in late spring. This delay would allow
Paul to write, edit, and append material over months, when Seneca would have
dispatched the letter and sent another. Were these ever missives, the frequent
dispatching of Seneca’s letters could explain why 50% of his letters are under
720 words (one charta). If we consider a letter of Paul commonly to have been
composed over months, usually a winter while awaiting traveling season, then
the length of Paul’s letters are more understandable. Seneca wrote a compara-
ble amount of material (and more) over the same period of time, but he sent
his as individual missives.92

4.6 Cost
For literary works, copyists used an average hexameter line of sixteen sylla-
bles for a total of about 36 characters per line. This line was called a stichos.
Copyists charged by the number of stichoi; books were priced in this way.93
Private letters appear to have conformed to this standard. Published copies of
Seneca’s collection certainly would have. For the sake of comparison, below
are the costs (in today’s American dollars) for the two longest and shortest
letters of Paul and Seneca.94

bearing with it some noble word” (22.13). His recent letters had provided a nugget from
Epicurus to end his letters: “But now, I must begin to fold up my letter. ‘Settle your debts
first,’ you cry. Here is a draft on Epicurus” (18.4; cf. also 13.16). A sentential to ponder from
Epicurus follows in all three letters, actually in Epp. 1-29. Thus, such remarks are likely
rhetoric. Likewise, it is no doubt rhetoric and not forgetfulness that prompts Caelius to
write “I nearly forgot what I had especially wanted to write” (Cicero, Fam. 8.14.4). Simi-
larly, Paul suggests he nearly forgot something (1 Cor 1:16). I argue that this is also rhetoric.
See Richards, Letter Writing, 152-53.
92 Or presents himself as having done this. The result is the same whether an imagined or
real epistolary situation.
93 Kurt Ohly is still the most cited reference (Stichometrische Untersuchungen [Leipzig: Otto
Harassawitz, 1928], esp. 88-89).
94 I remain open to criticism on how I calculated these costs. The estimates on Paul, how-
ever, have not been challenged, probably because I consistently estimated conservatively.
I am grateful to Korey Schaffer, a graduate assistant, for calculating the statistics on Paul’s
and Seneca’s letters, using my method. See Richards, Letter Writing, 165-69. Seneca was
unlikely to have hired a secretary but would have used his own slave, reducing further the
70 Richards

Number of Number of Percentage of Cost of Cost of Total cost Cost today

Characters Lines a “standard” papyrus secretarial in denars (US$)
charta needed per copy labor for the
per copy in denars per copy finished
in denars letter
Romans 34,232 979 136% 5.44 2.45 20.68 $2,275
Philemon 1,562 45 6% 0.24 0.11 0.93 $102
Ep. 94 23,677 677 94% 3.76 1.69 14.29 $1,572
Ep. 62 829 24 3% 0.12 0.06 0.48 $53

Paul’s letters were far more expensive and yet Paul had far fewer resources.
This striking contrast suggests the reasonable conclusion that Paul viewed his
letters as a very important part of his ministry, not an addendum.

5 Conclusion

It is not surprising that Pauline scholars want to compare the letter writing
practices of Paul and Seneca. They seem to have so much in common – at
least at first blush. They both stand within the Greco-Roman letter tradition,
a tradition undergoing change. Paul’s modification of the occasioned papyrus
letter to loftier purposes was not without precedent. Catherine Salles main-
tained that a gradual transformation was occurring within the letter writing
tradition. Cicero took what in Greek was a non-literary form and elevated it
while nonetheless retaining the vitality and spontaneity of the casual letter.95
She argued that Seneca combined the philosophical treatise with the letter
in the guise of everyday letters to his disciple.96 Inwood asks about Seneca,
“Why, at the end of a long life, a long and tumultuous political career, and
(perhaps most relevant) at the end of a brilliant literary career of unmatched
versatility, write letters?”97 Seneca’s letters are portrayed as one half of a di-
alogue, as pseudo-Demetrius argued was appropriate for a letter.98 Teichert
argues that the one-sidedness of the conversation between Seneca and Lu-
cilius allowed the reader to place himself in the role of Lucilius and to be

95 Catherine Salles, “Le genre littéraire de la letter dans l’antiquité,” Foi et Vie 84/5 (1985):
41-47 at 45. Coleman suggests this trajectory goes back to Plato and includes Paul (“Artful
Moralist,” 288).
96 Salles, “Le genre,” 46.
97 Inwood, “Introduction,” xiv.
98 Inwood, “Form,” 148, citing ps.-Demetrius, On Style, 223.
Some Observations on Paul and Seneca as Letter Writers 71

shaped by the correspondence.99 Perhaps this aspect of letter writing played

a role in encouraging Seneca to select “epistles” as a mode for propagating his
philosophy. Paul stands within this morphing tradition, where letters could
be altered to fit the needs of the creative mind. Seneca was seeking converts
by discussing everyday events. Paul was likewise making converts to his view-
Yet, it may seem to us Paul and Seneca ought to have more in common;
rather, observations often showed how different they were. Seneca’s letters
purport to be personal; yet they are really public. Written to a friend, they
show no real marks of friendship, community or genuine personal concern.100
On the other hand, Paul’s letters present themselves as more public, written
to communities, sometimes communities scattered across a city or even a
province. Yet, his letters seem deeply personal.
Paul used common epistolary formulae and rhetoric; Seneca did not (at
least as far as his heavily edited letters reveal). Ancient letters commonly men-
tioned prayers to the gods, such as: “Before all else, I pray that you will be strong
and cheerful and well, together with your entire family, and I am pleased
whenever I have news of you” (P.Mich. 8.467). Paul used similar phrases to
this Latin letter, but he thanked God at more length and for very different
things. Seneca rarely mentioned prayer. Each considered their recipient(s) to
be their handiwork (34.1; 2 Cor 3:1-3), with whom they were of one mind (35.2),
but Paul mentioned it more often and in less space and was more concerned
his disciples were of one mind with each other (Rom 15:6; 1 Cor 1:10; 2 Cor 13:11;
Phil 2:2).
While Seneca wrote more frequently, letters for him were a trifling expense,
for the aristocracy maintained slaves for reading, writing, and carrying letters.
Paul wrote far less frequently and at much greater expense, especially when
comparing their economic conditions. Seneca wrote long letters; yet, Paul’s
letters were even longer. Paul’s massive letters were book-length; only the let-
ter to Philemon was of typical letter length (if not a bit long). While Seneca
berates himself for writing a “huge letter” (95.3), Paul’s opponents ridicule him
for writing letters that are “weighty” (2 Cor 10:10), no doubt intending the pun.

99 D. Teichert suggests that both Seneca and the intended reader were shaped by the episto-
lary nature of the material (“Der Philosoph als Briefschreiber,” in Literarische Formen der
Philosophie [ed. G. Gabriel and C. Schildknecht; Stuttgart: J.B. Metzlersche, 1990], 71-72).
100 Robert Coleman observes that “Seneca plunges straight into the serious discussion with-
out any introductory small talk or the exchange of pleasantries that one might expect in
a communication with a close friend” (“Artful Moralist,” 276).
72 Richards

Nonetheless, despite the relative high cost and the greater challenges in writ-
ing and dispatching, Paul used letters. In the end, both men intended their
letters to persuade and not just to inform.
Jesus Christ and the Wise Man: Paul and Seneca on
Moral Sages

Runar M. Thorsteinsson

1 Introduction

The Jewish apostle Paul and the Roman Stoic Seneca were almost exact con-
temporaries and they lived in a world in which philosophy was considered
above all a way of life. Whatever the differences between the ancient philo-
sophical schools, they all shared the basic purpose of trying to establish a
bond between philosophical discourse and way of life.1 It was above all Plato,
with his highly successful portrait of Socrates, who set the stage for this devel-
opment in ancient philosophy. According to Plato’s portrait, knowledge was
not something purely theoretical; it was first and foremost a virtue, embodied
by a certain way of life. The ideal way of life was, in turn, embodied by the
ideal moral sage. Traditions about ideal moral sages were rich in the ancient
world, especially flourishing where philosophical traditions were prominent,
as in Rome, Seneca’s home, and Tarsus, Paul’s original hometown.2 While some
philosophical schools seem to have highlighted the figure of the ideal sage
more than others, the figure itself was not restricted to any particular school
but was rather a common element in all the major philosophical traditions,
and despite all doctrinal differences the figure had many common features
as well in the various traditions.3 After all, “What more accurate standard or

1 Pierre Hadot, What is Ancient Philosophy? (trans. Michael Chase; Cambridge: Harvard Uni-
versity Press, 2004), 55.
2 According to Acts 9:11; 21:39.
3 For a brief overview, see Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from
Socrates to Foucault (ed. with an introd. by Arnold I. Davidson; trans. Michael Chase; Malden:
Blackwell, 1995), 56-59; idem, What is Ancient Philosophy?, 220-31. On the difference between
the sage as the sophos and the sage as the phronimos, see the discussion in George B. Ker-
ferd, “The Sage in Hellenistic Philosophical Literature (399 B.C.E. – 199 C.E.),” in The Sage
in Israel and the Ancient Near East (ed. John G. Gammie and Leo G. Perdue; Winona Lake:
Eisenbrauns, 1990), 319-28; Benjamin Fiore, “The Sage in Select Hellenistic and Roman Liter-
ary Genres (Philosophic Epistles, Political Discourses, History, Comedy, and Romances),” in
ibid., 329-41. It should be noted, however, that first- and second-century C.E. philosophers
used these concepts interchangeably (see, e.g., Epictetus, Diatr. 2.22.3; 3.13.22).

© Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2017 | DOI 10.1163/9789004341364 005

74 Thorsteinsson

measure of good things do we have than the sage?” as Aristotle puts it (in his
lost work, Protrepticus, quoted in Iamblichus, Protr. 6.39.18). In other words,
wherever there are philosophical ideas there will be philosophical ideals, rep-
resented by real or abstract human prototypes.
Proponents of the philosophical schools freely admitted that the goal to be-
come a sage was almost impossible to reach and that actual sages were very
hard to find. The Stoics, for instance, whose doctrine of the sage was without
doubt the most influential and best known of its kind in Greco-Roman antiq-
uity, claimed that there were only a handful of true sages: “Only the fewest
in every age turn out wise” (Ira 2.10.6).4 According to the Stoics, the sage was
through and through a rational being who perfectly mirrors universal reason,
being in fact the only human being who truly and fully lives in accordance with
nature. As Simplicius observed, “What was peculiar to the [Platonic] ideas the
Stoics transferred to the sage.”5 The critics of the Stoics criticized them for be-
ing too strict on this point, having developed a whole doctrine around some-
thing that was practically impossible to reach. The Stoics replied by emphasiz-
ing that the sage was first and foremost a goal, and by underlining the value of
the goal as such.
In this essay I wish to examine, first, the way in which Seneca applies the
philosophical traditions about the moral sage, second, if and how Paul may
have viewed Jesus Christ as moral sage, and, third, how Paul and Seneca would
have responded to each other in this respect. In this way an attempt will be
made to generate a “dialogue” between the two thinkers.6

2 Seneca on Moral Sages

Seneca uses the word sapiens quite consequently for the sage in his works,
whereas the word philosophus is occasionally used (e.g., Ep. 88.27). According
to Seneca, the completely wise man sees the whole framework of philosophy
and life and is therefore calm and steadfast in his thinking and way of life (35.4;
85.38-40; 89.2; 120.10-11; Ben. 7.19.5). Because he knows his origin and end (Ep.
120.15), and he knows that a better one is in store for him (65.18), he accepts
his lot in the world (72.8; 120.12). Any adversity he simply counts as training

4 Cf. also Const. 7.1; Ep. 20.2.

5 Quoted in Ulrich Wilckens, “σοφία κτλ.,” in TDNT 7:473.
6 Translations of Paul’s texts are mine, unless otherwise noted. Translations of Seneca’s texts
are from the Loeb Classical Library.
Paul and Seneca on Moral Sages 75

(Prov. 2.2), and he accepts pain because he was “born to carry burdens” (Ep.
71.26), knowing that a good man is tested and hardened by God (Prov. 1.5-6;
2.6-7; 4.6-8, 11) who disciplines “those whom he approves [probat], whom he
loves [amat]” (4.7). This does not mean that the sage chooses to meet diffi-
culties, only that he endures them whenever necessary (Ep. 28.7). The highest
proof of wisdom is the harmony between words and deeds (20.2; cf. 34.4; 52.8;
Vit. beat. 25.8).
Against some earlier Stoics (Polyb. 18.5), Seneca is eager to point out that the
sage does have feelings and does feel passions such as pain and grief (Ep. 9.3;
71.26-30; Const. 10.4; Polyb. 18.5-6). Human virtue does not transcend nature, he
declares (Ep. 71.29). Those who have argued otherwise, for instance, in relation
to grief have never had to face it in their lives (Polyb. 18.5). However, this does
not mean that the sage gives in to passions such as pain or grief. While he feels
their presence, he does not allow the passions to affect him. As he explains in
Clem. 2.6.1-3, the sage does everything he can to help people who suffer from
passions like grief, because “he is born to be of help to all and to serve the
common good” (in commune auxilium natus ac bonum publicum) (3), but he
will not make their grief his own. Rather than sharing their grief in the sense of
becoming sad himself, he helps his fellow human beings with a totally tranquil
mind. In other words, the sage “will bring relief to another’s tears, but will not
add his own” (2; cf. Ep. 116.5).
In line with the altruistic character of Roman Stoic ethics,7 Seneca’s sage is
decidedly other-regarding. While he is perfectly self-sufficient he desires the
companionship of friends, neighbors, and associates (Ep. 9.3, 8, 13), not for any
selfish reasons but for totally altruistic ones. This is because the truly good man
loves his fellow human beings (115.3), and seeks to protect the weaker from the
stronger in society (90.5), ever willing to give up his own life for the sake of
his country and his fellow-citizens (76.27-29). He knows that the first thing
given by philosophy is fellow-feeling with other human beings, that is to say,
sympathy and sociability (humanitatem et congregationem, 5.4). To be sure,
the sage does not follow the masses and typically goes against the opinion
of the world (Const. 14.4). But being fundamentally other-regarding he does
not allow of any retaliation when confronted with or hit by a wrong-doing.
Instead, he disregards the wrong-doing altogether (Const. 14.3), and since he
knows the general human condition, that only few people in every age will
become sages and that the rest are stuck with their shortcomings, he treats the

7 Cf. Gretchen Reydams-Schils, The Roman Stoics: Self, Responsibility, and Affection (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 2005), 51.
76 Thorsteinsson

wrong-doer with kindness and justice (Ira 2.10.6-7). After all, “he is not the foe,
but the reformer of sinners” (non hostis sed corrector peccantium, Ira 2.10.7),
and there is no just reason to “grow angry at universal sin [publico vitio]” (Ira
2.10.4). The sage also desires fellowship of other sages, a fellowship based on
mutual help, joy, strengthening, tranquility, and communication (Ep. 109.1-5).
For although the sage is practically the perfect human being, he is not all-
knowing, and “even one who is running well is helped by one who cheers him
on” (109.5-6).
To be sure, the early Stoics tended to emphasize the gulf between philoso-
phers and the broad masses. But this has changed dramatically in later Sto-
icism. Seneca well mirrors this new emphasis on philosophy as open to every-
one, regardless of social standing:

Virtue closes the door to no man; it is open to all, admits all, invites all,
the freeborn and the freedman, the slave and the king, and the exile;
neither family nor fortune determines its choice – it is satisfied with the
naked human being [nudo homine contenta est]. (Ben. 3.18.2)

After all, Seneca explains, such prominent philosophers as Socrates, Plato, and
Cleanthes were certainly not aristocrats (Ep. 44.3-5). Philosophy did not dis-
cover them as virtuous individuals; it made them virtuous. The truly upright,
good, and great soul

may descend into a Roman knight just as well as into freedman’s son or
a slave. For what is a Roman knight, or a freedman’s son, or a slave? They
are mere titles, born of ambition or of wrong. One may leap to heaven
from the very slums. (31.11)


Nature bids me do good to all mankind – whether slaves or freemen,

freeborn or freed-men, whether the laws gave them freedom or a grant in
the presence of friends – what difference does it make? Wherever there
is a human being there is the opportunity for a kindness [benefici]. (Vit.
beat. 24.3; cf. also Ben. 3.28.1-3)

This emphasis on the social aspect of philosophy did not, however, diminish
its mythic dimension, that is to say, its close relation to religion and theol-
ogy. According to Seneca, the sole function of philosophy is to “discover the
truth about things divine and things human. From her side religion never de-
Paul and Seneca on Moral Sages 77

parts. . . . Philosophy has taught us to worship that which is divine, to love

[diligere] that which is human” (Ep. 90.3). Correspondingly, the ideal philoso-
pher, having “an element of godliness, heavenliness, and grandeur” (87.19), has
not only instructed his fellow human beings in the knowledge of the gods,
but he has taught them how to follow them as well (90.34; cf. 68.2). In fact,
there is a close relationship and likeness between the sage and God, the dif-
ference between whom is the element of time only. The ideal philosopher
and human being is “God’s pupil, his imitator, and true offspring, whom his
all-glorious parent, being no mild taskmaster of virtues, rears, as strict fathers
do, with much severity” (discipulus eius aemulatorque et vera progenies, quam
parens ille magnificus, virtutum non lenis exactor, sicut severi patres, durius ed-
ucat, Prov. 1.5; cf. Ep. 53.11; Const. 8.2).
Seneca exhorts his reader(s) to imitate the gods (Ben. 4.25.1; 7.31.5). But a
closer object of imitation is the sage who is not merely a good model for hu-
man beings but also a necessary one. Quoting Epicurus that people should
cherish some person of high character and live their lives as if this noble per-
son was ever watching their move, Seneca emphasizes that people need to
have such models. As such the sage is “a guardian and an attendant” (custo-
dem et paedagogum) who has the possibility not only to change other people
for the better when he is in their company but also simply by being in their
thoughts (Ep. 11.8-10; cf. 25.6; 94.40-41, 55; 102.30). This is also why the sages
are bound to suffer as they typically do, because their role is to teach others to
endure sufferings. In other words, “they were born to be a pattern” (nati sunt in
exemplar, Prov. 6.3).
While Seneca fully admits that true sages are very rare, he stresses that the
sage is not a fiction; not just an ideal without real historical examples (Const.
7.1; cf. Ira 2.10.6). He is eager to point out that he himself is far from being a
sage (Ep. 57.3; 116.4-5; 117.29; Vit. beat. 17.3-4; Helv. 5.2). But he gives some exam-
ples of people whose way of life (and death) proves that they were indeed true
sages. Early examples are characters like Ulysses and Hercules (Const. 2.1), but
more recent examples include philosophers like Zeno (Ep. 104.22; Ben. 7.8.2),
Cleanthes (Ep. 64.10), Chrysippus (Ep. 104.22; Ben. 7.8.2), Diogenes the Cynic
(Ben. 5.4.3-4), Posidonius (Ep. 104.22), Laelius the Wise (Ep. 11.10; 25.6; 64.10;
104.21), Demetrius the Cynic (Ben. 7.8.2-3), and especially Socrates and Cato
the Younger. It is clear from Seneca’s discussion that Cato was Seneca’s prime
model as a moral sage. So much so that he once calls him “the living image
of all the virtues” (Tranq. 16.1), and elsewhere he states that in Cato the gods
gave human beings a “truer exemplar” of a sage than they had done earlier in
Ulysses and Hercules (Const. 2.1; cf. also 7.1; 14.3; Ep. 104.21, 29-33). Neverthe-
less, Cato was rejected by the civic authorities, who were ignorant of his worth
78 Thorsteinsson

until they had lost him (Ep. 79.14).8 Following in the footsteps of a broad line
of Greek and Roman authors, Seneca also highlighted the role of Socrates as a
sage.9 Socrates was a “long-suffering old man” who had to face many hardships
which, in turn, revealed his true character as a sage: accused of disturbing
the state religion and of corrupting the youth in the city of Athens, he was
sentenced to prison where he, despite the opportunity to flee, totally “undis-
turbed” accepted his fate to drink poison (Ep. 104.27-28; cf. Ben. 5.6.1-7; 7.8.2).
In fact, both of these men, Cato and Socrates, died heroically by “despising
death” (Ep. 24.4, 6). When their time came, they chose to die rather than to
save themselves, the latter “in order to free mankind from the fear of two most
grievous things, death and imprisonment” (24.4).10 Both showed that the ques-
tion is not if one dies earlier or later, but if one dies well or not (70.4-5; cf. 101.15;
104.3; Tranq. 11.4). By so doing they urged their fellow human beings to be pre-
pared to offer their lives whenever reason, self-respect and duty demands it
(cf. Ep. 14.2).

3 Paul on Jesus as Moral Sage

It is well known that the letters of Paul11 are remarkably quiet about the life of
Jesus. Judging from his letters, Paul seems to have been mostly interested in the
death and “afterlife” of Jesus and only marginally in his life. Or at least this was
an aspect which he found most appropriate for the message he wished to give
to his readers: “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and
him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2 nrsv). However, there are nevertheless some passages
in Paul’s letters that do describe or allude to, if not so much the life of Jesus,
then the person or character of Jesus, whether in relation to his life or death
or “afterlife.” In essence, these passages appear to reveal a characterization of
Jesus as the ideal moral person.
For Paul Jesus was always the Christ, the Messiah. In his “good news” to non-
Jews, Greeks, Romans, and “barbarians” (Rom 1:13-15), the apostle presented

8 For further discussion of Cato as the prime example of the sapiens in Seneca’s eyes, see
Miriam T. Griffin, Seneca: A Philosopher in Politics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976), 182-94.
9 On Socrates as a sage in Hellenistic philosophy, see A.A. Long, “Socrates in Hellenistic
Philosophy,” The Classical Quarterly 38 (1988): 150-71. According to Long, Philodemus
made the observation that the Stoics actually wished to be called “Socratics” (Σωκρατικοὶ
καλεῖσθαι θέλουσιν) (151).
10 On Socrates and Zeno, Seneca says: “the former will show you how to die if it be necessary;
the latter how to die before it is necessary” (Ep. 104.21).
11 In this essay I deal with the seven undisputed letters of Paul.
Paul and Seneca on Moral Sages 79

(and presumably conceived) Jesus as the “son of God,” whether in life or death
(Rom 1:3-4, 9; 5:10; 8:3, 29, 32; 1 Cor 1:9; 15:28; 2 Cor 1:19; Gal 1:16; 2:20; 4:4, 6;
1 Thess 1:10), whom God had sent into the world on a specific mission (Rom
8:3; Gal 4:4). Paul claims to know what this mission was, and he implies that he
is familiar with the details of (some of) Jesus’ demands (1 Cor 7:10; 9:14; cf. 7:12,
25; 11:23). According to Paul, Jesus was no ordinary man, but he was rather “in
the likeness of sinful flesh” (Rom 8:3 nrsv). In fact, he was actually “in the form
of God,” to the point of being “equal to God,” when he “emptied himself, taking
the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” (Phil 2:6-7 nrsv; cf. 2 Cor
4:4). Or as Paul puts is elsewhere, Christ, who “did not know sin” (2 Cor 5:21),
was “rich,” but “became poor” (8:9). Correspondingly, in terms of ethics and
morality, Christ Jesus did not become overbearing or self-centered because of
his divine origin and nature, but quite to the contrary, he strove to “please”
(ἤρεσεν) others (Rom 15:3). Paul tells his Greco-Roman audience that Christ’s
act of “self-emptying” and “pleasing” is something which all Christ-believers
should imitate, that is to say, with respect to one another (Rom 15:1-3, 7; Phil
2:1-7). It was the will of Christ, indeed his “law,” that his followers would bear
the burdens of each other (Gal 6:2). Paul informs his readers that he himself
imitates Christ in this respect, and that so should they (1 Cor 11:1; cf. Phil 3:17;
1 Thess 1:6). They should in fact “clothe themselves” (ἐνδύσασθε) with Christ
Jesus (Rom 13:14; cf. Gal 3:27), meaning that, having been baptized into him,
they must take on the person of Christ by acting in accordance with his moral
character and way of life. This includes following the ethic of adaptability and
being willing to accept and welcome one another (cf. Rom 14:1-15:14).12
According to Paul, Jesus’ willingness to die on the cross was grounded in
two factors: his genuine care for others and his total faithfulness toward his
mission and God. Christ “gave himself for me” because of his love, ἀγάπη (Gal
2:20), and because he was faithful and obedient to God even to the point of
death (Rom 3:22; 5:17-19; Gal 2:16; 3:22; Phil 2:8; 3:9).13 Paul exhorts his readers
to follow in the footsteps of Christ in this regard as well, imitating his unlimited
faithfulness (Rom 3:26; 6:10-11) and “becoming like him in his death” (Phil 3:10
nrsv; cf. 1:29). This requires them to be “steadfast” and “immovable” in the
face of death, (thus) “excelling in the work of the Lord” (1 Cor 15:58 nrsv). Paul

12 See further the discussion in Runar M. Thorsteinsson, Roman Christianity and Roman
Stoicism: A Comparative Study of Ancient Morality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010),
100-03, 150.
13 I read the phrase πίστις Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ as subjective genitive. For an excellent argument
for and discussion of this reading, see Stanley K. Stowers, A Rereading of Romans: Justice,
Jews, and Gentiles (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), 194-226.
80 Thorsteinsson

underlines that while Christ’s death was an act of humility (Phil 2:8), at the
same time it was an act of wisdom (1 Cor 1:22-30; cf. 2:6-8). In fact, through his
faithful act Christ became God’s wisdom itself (1:24, 30). However, the death
of Christ was not the end of his state and character as a living being: although
dead, he lives, the apostle asserts (e.g., Rom 6:4-11). As such, he is the “body” of
the Christ-believing communities (Rom 12:4-5; 1 Cor 12:12), in whom the Christ-
believers (should) abound in love for one another (1 Thess 3:12; cf. Gal 5:6), and
in whom they are (or should be) enriched “in all speech and all knowledge” (ἐν
παντὶ λόγῳ καὶ πάσῃ γνώσει, 1 Cor 1:5).

4 Paul and Seneca in Dialogue on Moral Sages

Romans 12-15 most clearly presents Paul’s notion of the relationship between
Jesus Christ as moral sage and the proper morality of his followers. Already
in 12:1-2 Paul sets the stage for this notion by indicating that correct moral
action is in itself a proper and sufficient way to worship God. The audience’s
“reasonable worship” (λογικὴ λατρεία) is to offer their bodies as a “living sac-
rifice” (θυσία ζῶσα) to God, that is to say, to give up their previous manners
(described in 1:18-32) and devote themselves to a new way of life, “holy and ac-
ceptable to God” (12:1). This would be the gentile addressees’ proper response
to God’s decision to include them as partakers of God’s salvation plan. While
the apostle does not explicitly criticize cultic worship in the text, his presen-
tation of the “reasonable worship” may imply some criticism of such worship.
Seneca would have responded with consent, although he did little to withhold
his open criticism of cultic worship among his fellow Romans. Drawing on a
broad philosophical tradition of criticizing popular and cultic religion, Seneca
argued that it was in fact “sufficient” (satis) to imitate the gods and (thus) be a
good human being (bonus; Ep. 95.50). Cultic worship was more or less unnec-
essary and generated the danger of misuse and thoughtless self-righteousness
(Ben. 1.6.3; 4.25.1; Ep. 95.47; 115.5).
But Paul continues his explanation of proper worship in Rom 12:1-2: in v. 2
he adds a cognitive aspect to the audience’s “reasonable worship” by em-
phasizing that they need to let themselves be “transformed” or “metamor-
phosed” (μεταμορφοῦσθε) by “the renewing of the mind” (τῇ ἀνακαινώσει τοῦ
νοός). They must completely reverse their way of thinking from the “corrupt
mind” (ἀδόκιμος νοῦς) which once characterized their existence and because
of which they tended to do things that were improper (τὰ μὴ καθήκοντα, 1:28).
Such a transformation of the mind is required in order for them to be able to
fulfill their duty as rightful worshippers of God by following the moral precepts
Paul and Seneca on Moral Sages 81

provided by Paul. Without the transformation they have no chance of doing so.
As Seneca explains, “it will be of no avail to give precepts unless you first re-
move the conditions that are likely to stand in the way of precepts” (Ep. 95.38).
In other words, “a defect of character causes this in those who are blinded by
self-love, and whose fear in the hour of peril takes away their clear view of
that which is useful; it is when a man is more at ease and freed from fear that
he will begin to be wise” (Ep. 109.16). What is required, according to Seneca,
is a complete transformation or metamorphosis of the mind: “One who has
learned and understood what he should do and avoid, is not a wise man un-
til his mind [animus] is metamorphosed [transfiguratus est] into the shape of
that which he has learned” (94.48). Had Paul known Seneca’s argumentation
he might very well have made use of it to give support to his own argument,
although he may have used the phrase “in Christ” instead of the Stoic “wise
It should be observed that in his letter Paul was addressing people who had
already adopted faith in Jesus Christ as Messiah and were thus presumably
already acquainted with the basic moral demands required of them. In that
light it may be asked why the apostle insisted on providing the moral precepts
of Rom 12-15 in the first place. Why did he not simply state his definition of
the “reasonable worship” in 12:1-2 and then proceed as in 15:14: “But I myself
am confident about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness,
filled with all knowledge [γνῶσις], and able to admonish [νουθετεῖν] one an-
other”? Was this lengthy moral exposition in Rom 12-15 just a reminder of what
was required of them (cf. 15:15)? Or was there more to it than that? It seems to
me that the latter is the case and that there is a twofold answer to the question.
First, although Paul states that he has full confidence in his addressees (15:14),
he seems to believe that they are still “weak in the flesh” (6:19) due to their
background in the sinful and morally corrupt gentile world (cf. 1:18-32). Be-
cause of this background their way to moral perfection, represented by Christ
himself, is long and hard. Seneca helps us to understand this in corresponding
Stoic terms:

The approach to these qualities is slow, and in the meantime, in practical

matters, the path should be pointed out for the benefit of one who is
still short of perfection, but is making progress. Wisdom [sapientia] by
her own agency may perhaps show herself this path without the help of
admonition [sine admonitione]; for she has brought the soul to a stage
where it can be impelled only in the right direction. Weaker characters
[inbecilliores], however, need someone to precede them, to say: “Avoid
this,” or “Do that.” (Ep. 94.50)
82 Thorsteinsson

For Paul his gentile addressees are by definition “weaker characters” and are
therefore in need of the admonition provided in Rom 12-15. Commenting on a
scene that corresponds closely to the one discussed by Paul in 1:18-32, namely,
that of gentile immorality, Seneca writes:

Amid this upset condition of morals [in hac morum perversitate], some-
thing stronger than usual is needed, – something which will shake off
these chronic ills [mala inveterate]; in order to root out a deep-seated
belief in wrong ideas, conduct must be regulated by doctrines. It is only
when we add precepts, consolation, and encouragement to these, that
they can prevail; by themselves they are ineffective. If we would hold
men firmly bound and tear them away from the ills which clutch them
fast, they must learn what is evil and what is good. (Ep. 95.34-35)

The same thought seems to lie behind Paul’s purpose of including the moral
precepts of Rom 12-15, despite the fact that he is addressing people who are
already followers of Christ. In his text Paul presents “what is evil and what is
good” or, as Paul himself puts it, what is “good, acceptable, and perfect” (τὸ
ἀγαθὸν καὶ εὐάρεστον καὶ τέλειον) in the eyes of God (12:2). At the same time,
Paul intends to help the addressees to “root out” their “deep-seated believes in
wrong ideas” (cf. Seneca above), in case these are still present.
But there is a second reason why Paul includes his extensive moral teaching
of Rom 12-15, and here the notion of the sage comes more clearly into play:
Paul does not only want his addressees to know and follow the moral teaching
provided in the text; he also wants them to fully understand the meaning of
this teaching. Rather than just following Paul’s instructions mechanically, so
to speak, the addressees should transform themselves by the renewing of the
mind so that they can discern (δοκιμάζειν) what is the will of God (12:2). That is
to say, Paul wants them to carefully deliberate why God wants them to live in
a certain way, so that they may be able to make the right judgment themselves
as to what they should do and why. Here Paul may be drawing on the an-
cient philosophical discussion of the virtues and virtuous persons, according
to which “[t]he virtuous person is not just the person who does in fact do the
morally right thing, or even does it stably and reliably. She is the person who
understands the principles on which she acts, and thus can explain and defend
her actions.”14 In other words, the virtuous person, like the moral sage, holds

14 Julia Annas, The Morality of Happiness (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 67; em-
phasis original.
Paul and Seneca on Moral Sages 83

the disposition to do the right thing for the right reason. And if this is possi-
ble for the moral sage it is also possible for anyone else, for, as Seneca points
out, “virtue closes the door to no man” (Ben. 3.18.2). But it is not enough just
to follow certain moral precepts; in order to make progress morally one has to
strive to understand these moral precepts and the reason for their presence in
the first place. The intellectual renewing calls for intellectual development as
well. As a matter of fact, Paul continues his discussion in Rom 12 by alluding to
the classical virtue of φρόνησις or practical wisdom, through a word-play with
the verb φρονεῖν: “For I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone that
is among you, not to think (too) highly of yourselves [μὴ ὑπερφρονεῖν] beyond
what you ought to think [παρ’ ὃ δεῖ φρονεῖν], but to think [φρονεῖν] so as to
mind a proper moderation [εἰς τὸ σωφρονεῖν]” (v. 3). The virtue of φρόνησις was
typically understood as the primary virtue in Greek philosophy, a virtue that
determined the other cardinal virtues because it constituted the very dispo-
sition to make right moral judgments. Moral sages possessed this virtue since
they had reached the state of having learned to reason well about morality in
general.15 Simply put, φρόνησις represented the skill in living well. In his text
Paul may very well have been drawing on the philosophical understanding
of φρόνησις as the disposition to make right moral judgments in order to en-
courage practical wisdom and intelligence among his addressees so that they
would be better prepared to “discern what is the will of God, what is good,
acceptable, and perfect” (12:2). My suggestion is that, in philosophical terms,
Paul wanted to establish communities of (potential) “wise men and women”
who recognize not only what to do or how to do it but also why they should do
it. At the same time he encouraged his addressees to help each other toward
this goal through mutual goodness, wisdom, and proper admonition (15:14).
Paul’s contemporary, Seneca, would have agreed that such mutual encourage-
ment was necessary, even among the wise. Discussing the fellowship of the
sages, the Stoic philosopher writes: “Good men are mutually helpful; for each
gives practice to the other’s virtues and thus maintains wisdom at its proper
level. Each needs someone with whom he may make comparisons and inves-
tigations” (Ep. 109.1). Needless to say, Seneca tried to guide his readers toward
the goal of becoming wise, toward the (somewhat distant) goal of becoming
a sage. There is good reason to believe that, if he would have read Paul’s text
(which he did not, of course), Seneca would have recognized that this was pre-
cisely what Paul was attempting to do with his text, especially if the former
would have realized that Jesus Christ did have a role in Paul’s text which was
comparable to that of the moral sage.

15 Cf. Annas, Morality, 73.

84 Thorsteinsson

Where exactly is that role presented in Paul’s text? In Rom 14-15 Paul in-
cludes a discussion of the Christ-believers’ moral responsibility toward one
another. But immediately preceding that discussion, in ch. 13, he appeals to his
addressees to “put on” or “clothe” themselves with Jesus Christ (ἐνδύσασθε τὸν
κύριον ’Ιησοῦν Χριστόν, 13:14). The immediate context suggests that here Paul
is primarily referring to the moral characteristics of Christ, and that he wants
his audience to imitate these characteristics in their dealings with one an-
other and, to a certain extent,16 in their dealings with the outside world. Christ
is here seen in a similar role as the moral sage among the philosophers. As
Seneca advises,

Choose a master whose life, conversation, and soul-expressing face have

satisfied you; picture him always to yourself as your protector or your
pattern [vel custodem vel exemplum]. For we must indeed have some-
one according to whom we may regulate our characters; you can never
straighten that which is crooked unless you use a ruler. (Ep. 11.10)

Precisely as the Stoic sage, for Paul, Jesus Christ was “born to be a pattern”
(cf. Prov. 6.3). In Paul’s text this applies especially to the ethic of adaptability,
that is to say, the necessity and ability to adapt oneself to the needs of oth-
ers, namely, of those who are “weak in faith” (Rom 14:1). Christ led the way
in this respect: rather than pleasing himself (οὐχ ἑαυτῷ ἤρεσεν, 15:3) he impar-
tially welcomed all (προσελάβετο ὑμᾶς, 15:7), so that his followers would also
welcome one another (προσλαμβάνεσθε ἀλλήλους, 15:7). As a result, each and
every member of the Christ-believing community must “please” their “neigh-
bor” (i.e., fellow believers) for the purpose of building up the community (15:2).
It is clear that Paul mainly addresses the “strong” in Rom 14-15 whose obliga-
tion toward the “weak” is the main focus of the text. This may suggest that the
“weak” are not among the addressees of the letter (but note that Paul appears
to address both or all parties in 15:7), but it is more likely that the apostle writes
as if he is only addressing the “strong” because, ultimately, he wants everyone
among the audience to identify with the “strong,” the latter of whom includes
Jesus (15:3) and Paul himself (15:1). Paul’s wish is that everyone, including those
who at present are “weak,” may become “strong(er)” by way of an imitation of
the “strong.” Jesus Christ is the primary pattern to follow in this regard, and

16 I have argued elsewhere that while Paul certainly urges his audience to behave well in
society at large, he withheld the primary virtue of “love” (ἀγάπη) for the Christ-believers
and Christ-believers only (see Thorsteinsson, Roman Christianity, 192-98).
Paul and Seneca on Moral Sages 85

so is Paul whose paradigm, of course, is none other than Christ. As he says in

1 Cor 11:1: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”
The ethic of adaptability was frequently discussed in Greco-Roman antiq-
uity,17 including among the Stoics who attributed the idea of adaptability to
the moral sage. As we have seen, time and again Seneca emphasizes that the
sage looks to the needs of others in his dealing with people. Responding to
comments made by Epicurus where he, according to Seneca, holds that the
sage desires friends for the purpose of having someone at his side in times of
trouble or distress, Seneca writes that the purpose does not revolve around
the sage himself but quite the opposite: “that he may have someone by whose
sickbed he himself may sit, someone a prisoner in hostile hands whom he
himself may set free” (Ep. 9.8). In other words, the Stoic sage makes friends
for the primary purpose of being at their side in times of trouble and distress.
Based on this paradigm Seneca then informs his reader that he himself makes
friends “in order to have someone for whom I may die, whom I may follow into
exile, against whose death I may stake my own life, and pay the pledge, too”
(10). This comes close to what Paul appears to be emphasizing in Rom 15:1-3,
albeit in somewhat shorter terms. For Seneca “practicing friendship” is fun-
damentally other-regarding. Rather than focusing on his own needs, the sage
looks to the needs of the other, especially in times of trouble and distress. In
Paul’s terms, the sage strives to “please” and “bear the burdens” of others (Rom
15:1-3; Gal 6:2).
According to Seneca, the sage is ready even to give up his life for others.
In light of Seneca’s history of sages, such as that of Socrates, who suffered
death for the sake of others (cf. Ep. 24.4, quoted above), it seems reasonable to
assume that Seneca would have understood why Paul took such great pains to
emphasize that Jesus Christ gave up his life for others, and that his followers
should stand equally steadfast themselves even in the face of death. The Stoic
philosopher would probably not have considered such ideas as “foolish” as
Paul thought the gentiles would (1 Cor 1:23). Both of Seneca’s prime sages, Cato
and Socrates, suffered death in a context which was similar to that of Jesus
Christ. This is not to say that Seneca would have understood the sage to have
such a fundamental impact on the whole salvation history as Christ did in the
eyes of Paul, although, as we have seen, the religious dimension was never
far from the Stoic sage. The main point is that Jesus Christ and the Stoic sage
appear to have had very similar roles in the works of Paul and Seneca when

17 See Clarence E. Glad, “Paul and Adaptability,” in Paul in the Greco-Roman World: A Hand-
book (ed. J. Paul Sampley; Harrisburg: Trinity Press, 2003), 17-25.
86 Thorsteinsson

it came to the question of devoting their life to others, and to a certain extent
at least an analogous role with respect to the question of giving up one’s life
for the sake of others. Like Christ in Paul’s text the Stoic sage was God’s “true
offspring” (vera progenies) who “rears” his son “with much severity” (Prov. 1.5).
At the outset of his moral teaching in Rom 12-15 Paul urges his addressees
“not to be conformed to this world” (12:2). Their ultimate goal of moral trans-
formation is to “clothe” themselves with Jesus (13:14), that is to say, to become
like Jesus as moral beings. By implication, Jesus did not walk according to the
“ways of this world.” And neither did the Stoic sage, according to Seneca: the
ideal wise man “does not walk with the crowd [populus], but as the planets
make their way against the whirl of heaven, so he proceeds contrary to the
opinion of the world [adversus opinionem omnium]” (Const. 14.4). Conversing
with his imaginary interlocutor, elsewhere Seneca explains that

Our life should observe a happy medium between the ways of a sage and
the ways of the world at large; all men should admire it, but they should
understand it also. ‘Well then, shall we act like other men? Shall there be
no distinction between ourselves and the world?’ Yes, a very great one;
let men find that we are unlike the common herd [vulgo], if they look
closely. (Ep. 5.5-6)

To be sure, the theme of the ideal philosopher struggling alone against the
world at large was a quite common theme among ancient philosophers of any
philosophical school, but it is nevertheless interesting to see how closely Paul
and Seneca agree in this regard.
All in all one might say that Paul and Seneca would not have found them-
selves in serious disagreement as dialogue partners relating to the question of
ideal moral human beings as well as the question of the importance of those
beings for their respective followers. In Pauline terms, Seneca, too, urged his
readers to serve God primarily by presenting their bodies as “living sacrifices,”
that is to say, by leading a particular way of life, and rather than conforming to
the ways of the world, by undergoing a moral and intellectual transformation
in order to be able to discern what is “good, acceptable, and perfect” in the
eyes of God.

5 Conclusion

In this essay I have focused on the role of the moral sage in the writings of Paul
and Seneca. For Seneca, whether the sage was a real person or a moral ideal,
Paul and Seneca on Moral Sages 87

he was an important figure whose way of life (and death) should be imitated
by everyone. The sage accepts the burdens which God intends him to carry,
and he does not give in to passions generated by such burdens, although he
does feel these passions. The sage is unequivocally other-regarding and there
is a close father-son relationship between God and the sage. Examples of true
sages in the history of mankind include Socrates and Cato the Younger, both
of whom died heroically.
Paul’s description of the life of Jesus is surprisingly limited, but there are
nevertheless some passages where the apostle does at least describe the per-
son and character of Jesus, and many of these passages suggest that Paul may
have conceived Jesus in a similar fashion as Seneca conceived the ideal sage.
Indeed, a “dialogue” between Paul and Seneca shows how close the two were
in relation to their understanding of the importance of the ideal sage for the
moral life of their addressees. A comparative analysis of Seneca’s letters and
Paul’s letter to the Romans (esp. chs. 12-15) indicates that on several occasions
Paul might have made use of Seneca’s argumentation in this respect and vice
versa. Precisely as the wise man for Seneca, for Paul Jesus Christ was a person
to “put on.”
In his description of Jesus Christ, Paul may have been partly drawing on
contemporary Greco-Roman characterizations of ideal philosophical sages. As
Rom 12-15 illustrates most clearly, his purpose was to effectively present Jesus
as a moral paradigm, as the only true “wise man,” whom his audience should
continually strive to imitate. Such a paradigm was essential to Paul’s making
of communities of (potential) “wise men and women.”
Paul and Seneca on Suffering
Brian J. Tabb

Ancient and modern interpreters have often discussed parallels between the
lives and writings of the apostle Paul and the Stoic philosopher Seneca. How-
ever, their views on suffering have rarely been compared, even though scholars
have given ample attention to the apostle’s theology of suffering1 and “Seneca’s
name has been traditionally yoked with the concept of adversity.”2 One im-
portant exception is John T. Fitzgerald, who compares the literary form and
function of the peristasis catalogues in First and Second Corinthians with the
portrayals of “the hardships of the sage” in the writings of Seneca and other
Graeco-Roman philosophers.3
This essay will proceed in three parts. First, I will briefly summarize and
engage Fitzgerald’s thesis that Paul presents himself as the model sage, whose
serenity and endurance through hardships testify to his legitimacy and further
his moral instruction. Next, I will compare and contrast the perspectives of
Paul and Seneca on suffering adapting N.T. Wright’s approach to worldview
analysis.4 Finally, I will argue that disparities in their views about suffering
largely result from their different conceptions of how deity relates to human
beings and their suffering.5

1 See recent reviews of scholarship in Kar Yong Lim, ‘The Sufferings of Christ Are Abundant
in Us’: A Narrative-Dynamics Investigation of Paul’s Sufferings in 2 Corinthians (LNTS 256;
London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2009), 1-13; Paul Ellingworth, “‘Nobody Knows de Trouble
I Seen’: Hardship Lists in Paul and Elsewhere,” in New Testament Theology in Light of the
Church’s Mission: Essays in Honor of I. Howard Marshall (ed. Jon Laansma et al.; Eugene, OR:
Cascade, 2011), 317-26.
2 Anna L. Motto and John R. Clark, “Seneca and the Paradox of Adversity,” in Essays on Seneca
(New York: Peter Lang, 1993), 65-86 at 67.
3 John T. Fitzgerald, Cracks in an Earthen Vessel: An Examination of the Catalogues of Hard-
ships in the Corinthian Correspondence (SBLDS; Atlanta: Scholars, 1988), who explains his
focus on Seneca on 50. See also Ellingworth, “Nobody Knows,” 317-26; David E. Fredrickson,
“Paul, Hardships, and Suffering,” in Paul in the Greco-Roman World: A Handbook (ed. J. Paul
Sampley; Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 2003), 172-97.
4 N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (COQG; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992),
122-31; idem, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (2 vols; COQG; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013),
1:24-36, 538-69.
5 Wright, Paul, 1:27.

© Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2017 | DOI 10.1163/9789004341364 006

Paul and Seneca on Suffering 89

1 Hardship Lists in Paul and Seneca

In his important monograph, Cracks in an Earthen Vessel, Fitzgerald argues

that “Paul in 1 and 2 Corinthians frequently depicts himself in terms typically
used to describe the ideal philosopher, and his use of peristasis catalogues is an
integral part of this Selbstdarstellung.”6 Seneca and other philosophers employ
hardship lists as rhetorical and literary vehicles for demonstrating and com-
mending the sage’s virtue as an example to be emulated by others.7 Fitzgerald
notes at least six parallel functions between Paul’s lists of sufferings and the
peristasis catalogues of the wise person in Greco-Roman philosophical writ-
First, hardship lists demonstrate the sage’s serenity and fortitude.8 For
Seneca, the wise man is “happy in adversity, peaceful amid the storm” (Ep.
41.4),9 unaffected and unharmed by poverty, pain, or any injury or insult (Ep.
85.37; Const. 2.3). Similarly, the catalogues in 2 Cor 4:8-9 and 6:4-5 demonstrate
Paul’s endurance and confirm that he does not lose heart (cf. 4:1, 16) but tri-
umphs over suffering.10
Second, like the suffering sage for Hellenistic philosophers, the apostle
draws attention to his sufferings “as part of his paraenesis and pedagogy.”11
Seneca appeals to the graphic sufferings of moral exemplars to encourage
readers to confront and conquer their fears and to learn from and imitate the
endurance and virtue of true philosophers, such as Socrates and Cato (cf. Ep.
11.10; 24.9; 64.10).12 Similarly, after detailing his hardships, weakness, and fool-
ishness by the world’s standards, Paul warns the Corinthians as their spiritual
father and urges them to imitate his example (cf. 1 Cor 4:15-16).
Third, Fitzgerald observes that for the ideal sage and for Paul, sufferings
transpire according to divine plan. He writes, “The suffering of both is insep-

6 Fitzgerald, Cracks, 204; cf. 59-65.

7 Ibid., 114-15.
8 Ibid., 59-65.
9 Unless otherwise noted, quotations from Seneca are taken from Lucius Annaeus Seneca,
Epistulae Morales (trans. Richard M. Gummere; 3 vols; LCL; Cambridge, MA: Harvard Uni-
versity Press, 1917-25); and idem, Moral Essays (trans. John W. Basore; 3 vols; LCL; Cam-
bridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1928-35). Scriptural quotations follow the NIV.
10 Fitzgerald, Cracks, 204.
11 Ibid.
12 Cf. Roland G. Mayer, “Roman Historical Exempla in Seneca,” in Seneca (ed. John G. Fitch;
Oxford Readings in Classical Studies; New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 299-315 at
312; James Ker, The Deaths of Seneca (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 81; Winfried
Trillitzsch, Senecas Beweisführung (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1962), 35.
90 Tabb

arable from the mission to which they have been called, and, in the case of
both these suffering diakonoi, the divine is said to exhibit them as a model.”13
Seneca argues that the good person is “God’s pupil, his imitator, and true off-
spring,” and thus God like a strict father “tests him, hardens him, and fits him
for his service” (Prov. 1.5-6). Because nothing happens apart from the fixed de-
crees of Fate, Seneca urges readers to “be cheerful and brave in the face of
everything” and submit willingly to the divine will (Prov. 5.6-8). Paul writes,
“For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the
procession, like those condemned to die in the arena” (1 Cor 4:9). In 2 Cor 12:10,
the apostle affirms that “for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in
hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties.”
Fourth, Paul demonstrates a sagacious demeanor toward his opponents,
who demonstrate a worldly perspective.14 He writes, “When we are cursed,
we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it” (1 Cor 4:12-13). Paul’s humble,
exemplary deportment should move the Corinthians to radically reassess their
haughty attitude and imitate the apostle’s example (1 Cor 4:8, 16).15 Likewise,
Seneca asserts that “the power of wisdom is better shown by a display of calm-
ness in the midst of provocation,” for it is far better “to heal than to avenge an
injury” (Const. 4.3; Ira 3.27.1).
Fifth, Paul and the sage are not conquered by adversity but are victorious
over it.16 Paul emphatically asserts οὐκ ἐγκακοῦμεν (2 Cor 4:1, 16) before and
after detailing his sufferings in vv. 7-12. In Rom 8:37 he follows the peristasis
catalogue in v. 35 with the triumphant declaration: “But in all these things
we are completely victorious [ὑπερνικῶμεν] through him who loved us” (own
trans.). Seneca writes similarly,

When will it be our privilege, after all the passions have been subdued
and brought under out own control, to utter the words ‘I have conquered
[vici]!’? Do you ask me whom I have conquered [vicerim]? Neither the
Persians, nor the far-off Medes, nor any warlike race that lies beyond the
Dahae; nor these, but greed, ambition, and the fear of death that has
conquered the conquerors of the world [qui victores gentium vicit]. (Ep.

13 Fitzgerald, Cracks, 204.

14 Ibid., 138, 204-05.
15 Ibid., 148.
16 Ibid., 205.
17 Noted and discussed by Fredrickson, “Paul,” 188-89. Cf. Seneca, Ep. 67.16; Const. 2.1.
Paul and Seneca on Suffering 91

Fitzgerald observes, “For both Paul and the sage, what enables this victory over
adversity is power.”18 For Seneca, the great person exhibits the power of his
own mind (animus), which is “stirred by a force from heaven” and “propped
up by the divine” (Ep. 41.5). However, Paul’s hardships exhibit his own weak-
ness as well as the matchless power of God at work in him (2 Cor 4:7; 11:30;
12:10).19 Paul conquers not through his own reason but through Christ’s love
(Rom 8:37). Fitzgerald writes, “What Seneca affirms of philosophy, Paul thus
affirms of God.”20
Sixth, Fitzgerald explains that peristasis catalogues often function to
demonstrate the legitimacy of the true philosopher over against pretenders
and to justify the praise one is due.21 For example, Seneca writes, “For we Sto-
ics have declared that these were wise men, because they were unconquered
by struggles, were despisers of pleasure, and victors over all terrors” (Const.
2.1). Paul’s hardships likewise validate him as a genuine apostle and servant of
God, demonstrate his sincerity and integrity, and commend his ministry to the
Corinthians (2 Cor 6:3-13; 12:9-13).
While Fitzgerald examines only three Pauline hardship lists (1 Cor 4:9-13;
2 Cor 4:8-9; 6:4-10) and compares these with peristasis catalogues in Greco-
Roman philosophical writings, his study serves as a helpful entrée to this com-
parison of Paul and Seneca on suffering. However, some pieces of Fitzgerald’s
argument merit further scrutiny. To begin with, 2 Cor 11:23-29 – the most exten-
sive description of Paul’s hardships – reveals the apostle’s weakness, emotional
pains, and constant anxiety for the churches, not his serenity and fortitude
as an ideal Stoic.22 Moreover, while Paul endures suffering in dependence on
God’s strength manifested in human weakness (2 Cor 1:9; 12:9), the Stoic sage
demonstrates his own self-sufficiency and superior reason when enduring ad-
versity (cf. Ep. 41.1-2; Const. 6.8; Vit. beat. 27.3). Further, Fitzgerald asserts that
for Paul and the ideal sage, sufferings transpire according to divine plan and
are inseparable from their respective missions.23 While he concedes that Paul

18 Fitzgerald, Cracks, 205.

19 Cf. ibid., 206.
20 Ibid., 205. Likewise, Troels Engberg-Pedersen explains that Paul and the Stoics share
a similar logical thought pattern undergirding their anthropology and ethics, with the
apostle substituting God and Christ for divine reason. See Paul and the Stoics (Louisville:
WJK, 2000), 35.
21 Fitzgerald, Cracks, 114-15, 206.
22 Rightly noted by Lim, Sufferings, 7. Fitzgerald explains his decision to omit 2 Cor 11:23-28
and 12:10 from detailed study in Cracks, 3 n7.
23 Fitzgerald, Cracks, 204.
92 Tabb

and the philosophers have quite different understandings of God,24 Fitzgerald

does not draw out the Christological, missiological, and eschatological shape
of Paul’s perspective on suffering, which differs significantly from Seneca’s em-
phasis on suffering as an occasion for moral improvement and learning and
exhibiting virtue.
This study will not pursue a detailed comparative study of a particular
literary form (such as the peristasis catalogue) or motif (such as the suffer-
ing sage) in the writings of Paul and Seneca. My interest here is not probing
whether Paul was influenced by or borrowed from Stoicism. Rather, I intend to
compare and contrast how suffering functions in the worldviews of Paul and

2 Worldview Analysis of Paul and Seneca on Suffering

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “world-view” or Weltanschauung as

“a set of fundamental beliefs, values, etc., determining or constituting a com-
prehensive outlook on the world; a perspective on life.”25 James Olthius writes,
“[A] worldview functions both descriptively and normatively,” as “both a sketch
of and a blueprint for reality; it both describes what we see and stipulates
what we should see.”26 N.T. Wright explains that a worldview is “the basic stuff
of human existence, the lens through which the world is seen, the blueprint
for how one should live in it, and above all the sense of identity and place
which enables human beings to be what they are.”27 Thus, the term “world-
view” will be employed in this study to denote the way that a person or
group interprets reality, both as it is and ought to be. Worldviews provide
foundational stories by which people order their lives, are expressed in cul-
tural symbols and habitual actions or praxis, and are brought to expression
by asking elemental questions: Who are we? Where are we? What’s wrong?

24 Ibid., 205.
25 “World-view,” in OED Online (2011). For a systematic historical, philosophical, and theo-
logical introduction to worldview studies, see David K. Naugle, Worldview: The History of
a Concept (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002).
26 James Olthuis, “On Worldviews,” CSR 14 (1985): 153-64 at 156; emphasis original. This sec-
tion adapts the approach to worldview analysis outlined in Brian J. Tabb, “Suffering in
Ancient Worldview: A Comparative Study of Luke, Seneca, and 4 Maccabees” (LNTS 569;
London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2017), 16-22.
27 Wright, New Testament, 124.
Paul and Seneca on Suffering 93

What’s the solution? What time is it?28 This study will pose four heuristic
questions to summarize and synthesize Paul’s and Seneca’s views about suffer-

(1) How does suffering relate to our nature, task, and purpose in the world?
(2) How does suffering clarify the world’s basic problem?
(3) How does suffering relate to the solution for the world’s problem?
(4) How does present suffering relate to our expectations for the future?29

These questions will locate suffering in relation to these authors’ views of hu-
manity’s vocation, the world’s plight and its answer, and their eschatology. Ad-
ditionally, I will consider how their views of suffering are encoded and en-
forced through cultural symbols, as well as the theological underpinnings of
their worldviews.
The first person plurals in the worldview questions highlight the way these
authors and their intended readers view (or should view) suffering. Seneca
propounds Stoic teachings and addresses most of his writings to Lucilius or
other individual correspondents. However, for Seneca our suffering would de-
note humanity’s common lot of suffering which comes by Fate’s decrees. Like-
wise the question of our nature, task, and purpose concerns humanity’s divine
origin and common vocation to imitate the gods in conformity to Nature. At
the same time, Seneca writes to dispel common misperceptions about suffer-
ing and other matters and to promote true (Stoic) philosophy and right knowl-
edge.30 In contrast, Paul writes to instruct, encourage, and admonish believers
in Jesus Christ. While his writings have substantial implications for humanity
in general, the apostle focuses on cultivating a particular worldview and way
of life among fellow Christians. For example, he writes, “I press on toward the
goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Je-
sus. All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on
some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you” (Phil

28 Wright, Paul, 1:26; cf. idem, New Testament, 123-24.

29 Due to space limitations, this investigation omits Wright’s second question: where are
we? However, the question of “location” is implicit in the references to the world in my
first three questions.
30 Cf. Motto and Clark, “Paradox,” 77.
94 Tabb

2.1 How Does Suffering Relate to Our Nature, Task, and Purpose in the
Seneca explains, “Our aim is to live according to nature and to follow the exam-
ple of the gods” (Ben. 4.25.1).31 The gods inherently possess virtue, happiness,
and perfect reason. Human beings are equipped with reason, a divine trait,
and thus have a capacity for such things, though they are impeded by weak-
ness and a penchant for vice (Ep. 92.27-28). The gods are virtuous by nature,
but human beings must learn virtue through suffering, struggle, and philo-
sophical study (Ep. 95.36; 124.14).32
The philosopher writes, “No man is good by chance. Virtue is something
which must be learned” (Ep. 123.16; cf. 76.6; 90.46), and this happens through
cura, “effort” (124.14).33 No one prefers or seeks out suffering (67.3-4). However,
when adversity comes, the wise person recognizes it as a providential occa-
sion for education and endurance. Seneca observes that supposed calamity
has often been the cause and beginning of happiness (110.3). The goal is virtue,
the Supreme Good, not suffering, an indifferent thing, and virtue “enables us
patiently to endure hardships” (67.4). Yet the things commonly called hard-
ships or adversities may benefit individual sufferers, since such troubles func-
tion like a surgeon’s scalpel, inflicting necessary and temporary pain to bring
healing to those infected by the love of pleasure (cf. Prov. 3.1-2). Thus, Seneca
stresses that sufferings serve God’s design in hardening those afflicted against
the empty pleasures of vice, examining their character, and preparing them for
lives of true virtue (cf. Prov. 1.6; 4.7-8).
Paul typically focuses on his own suffering and persecution and that of fel-
low Christians.34 Believers should not be surprised or moved by afflictions
(1 Thess 3:3-4), as it has been granted to Christians to believe in Christ and
suffer for him (Phil 1:29). According to 2 Tim 3:12, “everyone who wants to live

31 Translation by Miriam T. Griffin and Brad Inwood, Seneca, On Benefits (Chicago: Univer-
sity of Chicago Press, 2011), 101. The following analysis of suffering in Seneca’s worldview
adapts material from Tabb, Suffering, 54-80.
32 Cf. Harry M. Hine, “Seneca, Stoicism, and the Problem of Moral Evil,” in Ethics and
Rhetoric: Classical Essays for D. Russell on His Seventy-Fifth Birthday (ed. Harry M. Hine
et al.; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 93-106 at 105-06.
33 For this rendering, see Brad Inwood, Seneca: Selected Philosophical Letters: Translated with
Introduction and Commentary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 101. Cf. Epictetus,
Diatr. 1.24.1; Ovid, Tristia 4.3.80.
34 This essay considers the theme of suffering in all thirteen NT letters that bear Paul’s name
as sender or co-sender, not only the Hauptbriefe. For recent discussion of the sources of
Paul’s thought, see Wright, Paul, 1:56-63.
Paul and Seneca on Suffering 95

a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” Distinctly Christian suffering is

characterized by endurance, joy, and hope. Paul rejoices in his own sufferings
(Col 1:24) and commends the Thessalonians, who “welcomed the message in
the midst of severe suffering [ἐν θλίψει πολλῇ] with the joy given by the Holy
Spirit” (1 Thess 1:6). Elsewhere he writes, “And we boast in the hope of the
glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings [καυχώμεθα ἐν
ταῖς θλίψεσιν], because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perse-
verance, character; and character, hope” (Rom 5:2-4). Afflicted believers also
experience God’s comfort through Christ and are made agents of comfort to
others who are suffering (2 Cor 1:4).
Paul presents his own suffering as fundamentally tied to his apostolic task
to bear witness to the suffering and risen Lord Jesus (cf. 2 Tim 1:10-12). Plum-
mer writes, “Paul could not conceive of his apostolic mission apart from suf-
fering.”35 The apostle explains, that his imprisonment for Christ “has actually
served to advance the gospel” (Phil 1:12; cf. Eph 3:1; Col 4:3-4; 2 Tim 2:9). He
refers to his physical scars from persecution as τὰ στίγματα τοῦ Ἰησοῦ (Gal
6:17),36 and likens himself to one sentenced to die in the arena or in a Roman
triumphal procession (1 Cor 4:9; 2 Cor 1:9).37 Paul insists that his sufferings do
not undermine but underscore his legitimacy as an apostle of Christ,38 and so
he commends himself as God’s servant by his hardships (2 Cor 6:4-5).
In summary, both authors argue in their own ways that suffering is an in-
escapable reality of life and that human beings seeking to fulfill their God-
given vocation in the world can and must endure suffering. For Seneca, suf-
fering is part of the core curriculum whereby people are tested, learn moral
virtue, and thus achieve their potential. For Paul, Christians suffer as a conse-
quence of following their suffering Lord and faithfully proclaiming the gospel
message. Believers should not despair when sufferings come, but should be
“joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer” (Rom 12:12).

35 Robert L. Plummer, “The Role of Suffering in the Mission of Paul and the Mission of the
Church,” SBJT 17 (2014): 6-19 at 7.
36 Cf. Richard N. Longenecker, Galatians (WBC; Dallas: Word, 1990), 300; James A. Kelhoffer,
Persecution, Persuasion and Power: Readiness to Withstand Hardship as a Corroboration of
Legitimacy in the New Testament (WUNT; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010), 50-51.
37 For an exposition of 2 Cor 2:14, see Scott J. Hafemann, Suffering and the Spirit: An Exeget-
ical Study of II Cor. 2:14-3:3 within the Context of the Corinthian Correspondence (WUNT;
Tübingen: Mohr, 1986), 18-87; Lim, Sufferings, 64-96.
38 Kelhoffer, Persecution, 64-65. Cf. Scott J. Hafemann, “The Role of Suffering in the Mission
of Paul,” in Mission of the Early Church to Jews and Gentiles (ed. Jostein Å dna and Hans
Kvalbein; WUNT; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2000), 165-84 at 175-76.
96 Tabb

2.2 How Does Suffering Clarify the World’s Basic Problem?

Following traditional Stoic teaching, Seneca classifies moral evil as bad, virtue
as good, and everything else as indifferent.39 People naturally prefer indiffer-
ent things such as health, fame, wealth, and freedom from pain, while instinc-
tively avoiding unfavorable circumstances, such as sickness, pain, ignominy,
and poverty (Ep. 66.5, 36-37; 92.11). Suffering and adverse circumstances are
not “evil,” as many assume, since Stoics restrict mala to moral evil, such as sin,
crime, and vice (Prov. 6.1).40 Seneca explains that certain virtues like bravery
are only manifest in suffering, and thus the desire for virtue should motivate
the sufferer to endure even the most unsavory trials (Ep. 67.4-7).41 Whether
one reclines at a banquet or endures painful torture, “the virtue in each case is
the same” (66.20), though the latter is greater. Seneca offers greater praise for
Mucius’s burned and shriveled hand than for the bravest man’s uninjured hand
(66.51).42 The Stoics do not deny suffering’s pain or unpleasantness, unlike the
Cynics. Seneca quips, “our ideal wise man feels his troubles, but overcomes
them; their wise man does not even feel them” (9.3). Calamity cannot harm
the sage whose virtue and happiness cannot be taken away (Const. 2.3; 3.5;
Seneca conceives of sin as fundamentally noetic and anthropocentric. The
fundamental problem in the world is thus not suffering but ignorance (imperi-
tia), which prompts enslavement to vice rather than the true freedom offered
by virtue (Ep. 31.6; 85.28).43 Seneca teaches that people are innocent at birth,
given health and freedom by Nature, though each person corrupts himself and
others, resulting in “a vast mass of wickedness” (94.54-56).44 In Seneca’s world-
view, such innocence or ignorance of sin is inferior to learned virtue, demon-
strated in adversity (cf. 90.46).45 Russell explains, “Philosophy alone gives hap-

39 Ep. 117.9; cf. Cicero, Fin. 3.50-53.

40 Cf. A.A. Long, “The Stoic Concept of Evil,” Philosophical Quarterly 18 (1968): 329-43.
41 Cf. Catharine Edwards, “The Suffering Body: Philosophy and Pain in Seneca’s Letters,” in
Constructions of the Classical Body (ed. James I. Porter; Ann Arbor: University of Michigan
Press, 1999), 252-68 at 254; Susanna E. Fischer, Seneca als Theologe: Studien zum Verhä ltnis
von Philosophie und Tragö diendichtung (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2008), 34-35.
42 Hine, “Seneca,” 97.
43 Cf. Long, “Evil,” 337.
44 Seneca here followers Chrysippus, against Posidonius, in teaching humanity’s natural
goodness and disposition to virtue, as noted by Fischer, Seneca, 29. Cf. Diogenes Laertius,
Lives 7.89.
45 Cf. Villy Sørensen, Seneca: The Humanist at the Court of Nero (trans. W. Glyn Jones; Edin-
burgh: Canongate, 1984), 224-25.
Paul and Seneca on Suffering 97

piness; it does more than reproduce the bliss of the Golden Age, because it
offers not innocent ignorance but virtue born of struggle.”46
Paul likewise believes that humanity’s basic problem is sin, not suffering.
However, in Paul’s worldview, present human suffering is ultimately a conse-
quence of creation being subjected to futility following humanity’s fall into sin
(Rom 8:18-20; cf. Gen 3:17-18).47 Suffering believers groan with the rest of cre-
ation because of the world’s futility and brokenness, while longing expectantly
for future redemption (Rom 8:21-23).
The problem of sin is universal: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one
understands; no one seeks for God” (Rom 3:10-11; cf. Ps 14:2-3). People do not
honor God or obey the truth (Rom 1:21; 2:8). Further, “the god of this age has
blinded the minds of unbelievers” (2 Cor 4:4), at least in part by inspiring and
sustaining the zeitgeist of pride, self-regard, and worldly glory antithetical to
the cruciform glory of the gospel of Christ, which the apostle proclaimed and
Paul’s message about the crucified Messiah Jesus is offensive to unbelievers
and prompts persecution (Gal 5:11; cf. 4:29). The rulers of this age crucified the
Lord of glory because they did not understand God’s hidden wisdom (1 Cor
2:8). This pattern continues as those who spurn the gospel of Christ crucified
and afflict Christ’s servants are “‘stockpiling’ their sins to the very top measure”
and incur God’s wrath (1 Thess 2:15-16).49 The apostle acknowledges that he
formerly persecuted the church but received mercy because he acted in un-
belief, ignorant of the true identity of Jesus (1 Tim 1:13).50 Hafemann writes,
“Thus, the cross of Christ that initially caused Paul to persecute the Church

46 D.A. Russell, “Letters to Lucilius,” in Seneca (ed. Charles D.N. Costa; London: Routledge,
1974), 70-95 at 93. Cf. Hine, “Seneca,” 94-96.
47 Cf. James D.G. Dunn, Romans 1-8 (WBC; Dallas: Word, 1988), 470; Douglas J. Moo, The
Epistle to the Romans (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 515-16.
48 Timothy B. Savage, Power through Weakness: Paul’s Understanding of the Christian Min-
istry in 2 Corinthians (SNTSMS; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 159-60.
49 Gordon D. Fee, The First and Second Letters to the Thessalonians (NICNT; Grand Rapids:
Eerdmans, 2009), 101.
50 See Philip H. Towner, The Letters to Timothy and Titus (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerd-
mans, 2006), 140-41. Kelhoffer asserts, “1 Tim 1:13 departs significantly from Paul’s self-
presentations of his past as a zealous Jew who persecuted the church – with never a
hint of shame or remorse. Although 1 Tim 1:13 reflects an aspect of Paul’s past attested in
three undisputed letters, the novel explanations of Paul’s ignorance and unbelief stand in
sharp contrast to authentic Pauline passages and to the Paul of Acts” (Persecution, 81). In
my view, Kelhoffer overstates the differences between 1 Tim 1:12-17 and other NT accounts
of Paul’s conversion (e.g., Gal 1:13; 1 Cor 15:9; Acts 22:3-5). He also overlooks the integral
98 Tabb

had now become the centerpiece of his own life and ministry as an apostle.
The persecutor had now joined the ranks of those being persecuted for their
faith in the crucified messiah.”51
In summary, Seneca and Paul agree that the world’s basic problem is sin,
though they disagree about its relationship to suffering. In Seneca’s world-
view, sin is false thinking and slavery to vice, which is endemic to human so-
ciety. Suffering is indifferent to one’s happiness and well-being and inevitable
in this world, and well-trained minds should view adversity as an opportunity
to demonstrate virtue, the only good. In contrast, for Paul suffering and death
are ultimately the results of sin against God, from which humanity will be lib-
erated one day. The Christian message of a crucified Lord is folly to the world
and prompts persecution from Jews and Gentiles (cf. 1 Cor 1:18, 23).

2.3 How Does Suffering Relate to the Solution for the World’s Problem?
Seneca argues that the solution to humanity’s moral and intellectual plight in
this world is to embrace true philosophy, which entails a transformation of
mind and actions. He acknowledges that, during an earlier bout with severe
sickness, “My studies were my salvation . . . I owe my life to philosophy” (Ep.
78.3). It is unnecessary to pray for divine deliverance from trials, as one needs
only to look within for the strength to overcome vice and demonstrate virtue
in hardship (cf. 116.8). Equipped with divine reason, each person has sufficient
strength to rise above adversity, learn virtue, and unlearn vice (50.7).
Humanity is gripped by fear of suffering and death. Such fear compounds
and hastens mental suffering and paralyzes people from truly living. Human-
ity suffers from the false belief of fear, so Seneca counsels readers to over-
come fear by appropriating a proper philosophical perspective. Philosophy
helps people face their fears and prepare for, endure, and master sufferings
(Ep. 14.3-6, 11). Seneca employs the Stoic strategy of imagining and prepar-
ing for future troubles before they come (Ep. 107.4; Marc. 9.1-5).52 He graphi-

function of 1 Tim 1:12-17 in the wider argument of the letter. In particular, the thanksgiving
section explains the apostle’s entrustment with the gospel (v. 11) and recounts the apos-
tle’s former reviling, pride, arrogance, and unbelief, which all characterize the Ephesian
opponents (1 Tim 1:7, 20; 6:1, 21). Thus Paul’s “own experience of coming to faith provides
a blueprint for measuring the authenticity of any who would oppose him,” according to
Towner, Letters to Timothy and Titus, 134.
51 Hafemann, “Role of Suffering,” 167.
52 See Mireille Armisen-Marchetti, “Imagination and Meditation in Seneca: The Example of
Praemeditatio,” in Seneca (ed. John G. Fitch; Oxford Readings in Classical Studies; New
York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 102-13 at 112.
Paul and Seneca on Suffering 99

cally presents for readers the most gruesome forms of suffering to fortify their
minds and to urge them to find solace in philosophy (Ep. 14.11; 24.24).53
Seneca regularly calls readers to learn from and imitate great moral exem-
plars who have demonstrated virtue by enduring awful sufferings. Those who
have successfully overcome adversity and demonstrated virtue offer necessary
encouragement to others to master their own fears (Ep. 24.9). The victorious
sage also provides a model for others to imitate (cf. Prov. 6.3).54 For Seneca,
Marcus Cato epitomized bravery and virtue by enduring toil, showing con-
tempt for exile, and above all by scorning death, choosing to take his own life
in an honorable fashion (Ep. 24.6-8; 67.12-13; Prov. 2.9-12; Tranq. 16.1).55
We have already seen that for Paul, all human beings, “both Jews and Greeks,
are under sin,” and the whole world is answerable to God for its sin (Rom 3:9,
19). Adam’s sin brought death and condemnation and resulted in creation’s
subjection to futility (Rom 5:12, 16; 8:20). The singular solution to this plight
is the vicarious suffering and death and the victorious resurrection of Jesus
Christ. Paul proclaims as of first importance Christ’s death, burial, and res-
urrection according to the Scriptures (1 Cor 15:3-4). He explains, “Christ re-
deemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Gal 3:13).
Jesus by his suffering and death achieves complete forgiveness and reconcili-
ation to God for sinners who turn to him in faith (2 Cor 5:18-20; Col 2:13-14).
Believers are controlled by the love of Christ and have a new purpose, per-
spective, and identity “in Christ,” which Paul explains as “new creation” (2 Cor
Additionally, Col 1:24 presents Paul’s sufferings (τοῖς παθήμασιν) being in
some sense for the Colossian believers (ὑπέρ ὑμῶν) and “filling up what is lack-
ing in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.”57 Many
commentators interpret the phrase ἀνταναπληρῶ τὰ ὑστερήματα τῶν θλίψεων
τοῦ Χριστοῦ to mean that Paul through his sufferings is in the process of com-
pleting the Messianic woes inaugurated by Jesus’ suffering but not yet con-

53 Cf. Edwards, “Suffering,” 258, 262.

54 Cf. Mayer, “Exempla,” 312.
55 On Seneca’s appeals to Cato, see G.O. Hutchinson, Latin Literature from Seneca to Juvenal:
A Critical Study (Oxford: Clarendon, 1993), 273-79.
56 Cf. G.K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in
the New (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 298-304.
57 The literature on this challenging verse is voluminous. See most recently Bruce T. Clark,
Completing Christ’s Afflictions: Christ, Paul, and the Reconciliation of All Things (WUNT
2/383; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2015).
100 Tabb

summated.58 Hooker rejects this reading and argues that Col 1:24 highlights
“the representative character of Christ’s death,” as Paul’s sufferings for the ben-
efit of others conform to the pattern set by his Lord.59 A third possibility is that
“what is lacking” refers to the knowledge and visual portrayal of Jesus’ salvific
sufferings among the non-evangelized Gentile world.60 Some variation of this
final option seems most likely. Paul is clear that Christ’s shed blood at the cross
is sufficient to achieve peace, redemption, and forgiveness (1:14, 20; 2:13-14).
Paul by his sufferings, particularly his shameful imprisonment (4:3, 18),61 per-
sonally embodies the message of the cross that he heralds as an apostle to the
nations. Paul’s suffering attends his gospel proclamation and is itself a crucial
means by which he discloses the scandalous message of Jesus as the suffering,
risen Lord. It is very likely through his own suffering and weakness that Paul
“publicly portrayed” the crucified Christ before the eyes of the Galatians (Gal
3:1; cf. 4:13; 6:17).62 Plummer writes, “When the apostle suffers in his proclama-
tion of the gospel before potential converts, he puts on a ‘Passion play’ in his
own body.”63
For both Seneca and Paul, the solution to humanity’s problem of sin (how-
ever defined) is the example and achievement of an individual or individuals
who have triumphed amid suffering, as well as a new way of being in the world.
Seneca summons readers to embrace philosophy, which brings salvation from
faulty thinking and prepares people to face their fears and bravely endure suf-
ferings. Seneca commends the example of Marcus Cato, Socrates, and others
who offer encouragement and instruction to others seeking to embrace a life of
philosophy and demonstrate virtue through suffering. Paul heralds the death
and resurrection of Jesus as divine solution to humanity’s plight. The apostle

58 E.g., Peter T. O’Brien, Colossians-Philemon (WBC; Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1982), 78-80;
James D.G. Dunn, The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon: A Commentary on the
Greek Text (NIGTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 115-17.
59 Morna D. Hooker, “Interchange and Suffering,” in Suffering and Martyrdom in the New
Testament (ed. William Horbury and Brian McNeil; Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1981), 70-83 at 82.
60 Cf. Scott J. Hafemann, “Suffering,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (ed. Gerald F.
Hawthorne et al.; Downers Grove: IVP, 1993), 919-21 at 920.
61 Clark, Completing, 171-72.
62 Scott Hafemann, “‘Because of Weakness’ (Galatians 4:13): The Role of Suffering in the
Mission of Paul,” in The Gospel to the Nations: Perspectives on Paul’s Mission (ed. Peter Bolt
and Mark Thompson; Downers Grove: IVP, 2000), 131-46 at 136. Cf. Basil S. Davis, “The
Meaning of ΠΡΟEΓΡΑΦH in the Context of Galatians 3.1,” NTS 45 (1999): 194-212.
63 Plummer, “Role,” 11.
Paul and Seneca on Suffering 101

personally portrays the gospel of his suffering Lord through his own sufferings
for Christ and for the churches.

2.4 How Does Present Suffering Relate to our Expectations for the
In Seneca’s worldview, all human beings suffer until they die (Ep. 54.2-5). Sev-
enster concedes, “[I]t is not so easy to ascertain what Seneca thinks of the life
after death.”64 Seneca conceives of two possibilities for what happens at death:
either one will endure a process of purification and change and pass into a bet-
ter life among the gods, or one ceases to exist, suffering is ended, and the soul
is returned to the universe (65.24; 71.16).65 Seneca more frequently emphasizes
the former possibility of a beatific afterlife.66 Regardless, the philosopher’s ba-
sic conviction is that “death frees the self from life’s tortures.”67 Death marks
the end of suffering, and so one should not fear death but “see to it that the
closing period is well turned” (77.20), which means dying “honourably, sensi-
bly, bravely” (77.6), and often for Stoics, by suicide (77.15; Prov. 2.10; 6.9).68
The philosopher rejects any notion of final judgment or post-mortem suffer-
ing as “the fancies of the poets, who have harrowed us with groundless terrors”
(Marc. 19.4). In Seneca’s view, “the greatest punishment of doing wrong is hav-
ing done it, and no man suffers more grievously than the person sentenced to
regret” (Ira 3.26.2).69 Following Stoic teaching, he teaches that a future world
conflagration will mark the end of the present cosmos and the beginning of a
new one (Ep. 9.16). Seneca counsels readers to prepare for future suffering,
come what may, but he insists that one should neither fear future trouble
nor hope for improved circumstances (5.7-8; 10.3). The wise person “ever lives
happy in the present and unconcerned about the future” (Vit. beat. 26.4).

64 Jan N. Sevenster, Paul and Seneca (Leiden: Brill, 1961), 224.

65 Tertullian summarizes Seneca’s view: “After death all comes to an end, even (death) itself”
(An. ch. 42 [ANF 3:464]; cf. Res. ch. 1 [ANF 3:1216]).
66 Austin Busch, “Dissolution of the Self in the Senecan Corpus,” in Seneca and the Self (ed.
Shadi Bartsch and David Wray; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 255-82
at 264-65. For references, see Anna L. Motto, Seneca Sourcebook: Guide to the Thought of
Lucius Annaeus Seneca in the Extant Prose Works (Amsterdam: Hakkert, 1970), 59-62.
67 Busch, “Dissolution,” 257.
68 “The rationality of suicide ‘at the right time’ was a notorious Stoic doctrine,” according
to A.A. Long and D.N. Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers (2 vols; Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1987), 1:428.
69 Translation by Robert A. Kaster, Seneca, Anger, Mercy, Revenge (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 2010), 84. See Fischer, Seneca, 24-26.
102 Tabb

Paul views suffering through the lens of “the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’ of the
messianic narrative.”70 God sent his Son “when the fullness of time had come”
(Gal 4:4), and “all the promises of God find their Yes in him” (2 Cor 1:20). Jesus
suffered and died to achieve salvation, forgiveness, justification, and reconcili-
ation for estranged, sinful, ungodly human beings, and then God “raised Christ
from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms” (Eph
1:20). For Paul, the Messiah’s death and resurrection mark the eschatological
turning point from the old age to the new.71
This present-future pattern of suffering and death followed by glory and res-
urrection life fundamentally shapes Paul’s perspective on his and other believ-
ers’ present suffering in at least two ways. First, suffering believers confidently
hope in a glorious future where God will consummate his purposes of redemp-
tion, abolishing sin and death forever, and granting believers immortal bodies
patterned after Jesus’ resurrected body (Rom 6:5; 8:21-25; 1 Cor 15:45-57). At
this time God will also grant relief to afflicted Christians while afflicting their
persecutors (2 Thess 1:6-7). Paul confidently asserts that present sufferings “are
not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom 8:18).
Second, resurrection for Paul is also “a present reality.”72 Believers’ lowly
bodies will be transformed to be like Jesus’ glorious body (Phil 3:21), but they
are already experiencing incremental transformation into Christ’s image (cf.
2 Cor 3:18; 4:16; Col 3:10).73 Paul reasons that his “light momentary affliction” is
presently producing (κατεργάζεται) an incomparable “eternal weight of glory”
(2 Cor 4:17). According to Col 3:1, Christians by faith have been “raised with
Christ” and seated with him in the heavenly realms (cf. Col 2:12; Eph 2:6). Kel-
hoffer reasons that Colossians presents an alternative eschatological frame-
work to the undisputed Pauline letters: “since believers have already been
raised with Christ, they do not need to suffer with, or for, Christ.”74 This claim is
overstated. While Colossians emphasizes Christians’ present resurrection life
to counter the false teaching at Colossae (cf. Col 2:8, 20-23), the new “life” of
believers is presently hidden and will be manifest only at the parousia (3:3-4).
Christians must “seek the things above” and “put to death the earthly things”
(3:1, 5) – commands that presuppose that they are not yet perfect.75

70 Wright, Paul, 1:550.

71 Beale, Biblical Theology, 295.
72 Savage, Power, 182.
73 Ibid., 181-82.
74 Kelhoffer, Persecution, 74.
75 Cf. P.T. O’Brien, Colossians-Philemon, 160.
Paul and Seneca on Suffering 103

In summary, Seneca advocates a non-eschatological present focus in suffer-

ing, while the apostle’s perspective on suffering is fundamentally shaped by
his conviction that the future age of restoration and new creation has already
been inaugurated through the resurrection of the Messiah, who will return
to consummate God’s kingdom and vindicate his people. Both authors could
agree with Paul’s taunt: “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is
your sting?” (1 Cor 15:55). The Stoic would likely put this quotation on the lips
of Marcus Cato, whose virtuous suicide exemplifies Seneca’s view that death
need not be feared but is a pathway to freedom (Tranq. 16.1). In contrast, the
apostle argues that this saying will be fulfilled in the future resurrection, but
has already been set in motion through the victory of the crucified and risen
Lord Jesus (cf. 1 Cor 15:54, 56-57).

2.5 Suffering and Worldview Symbols

Thus far, I have compared Paul’s and Seneca’s views about suffering using
worldview questions. It is also useful to consider how suffering relates to the
symbols that expressed and maintained the worldviews that the apostle and
philosopher shared with their respective communities.76
Seneca’s Rome was charged with symbols, particularly expressions of devo-
tion to the gods and the emperor, “the gods’ representative on earth” (Clem.
1.1.2)77 and pater patriae (1.41.2). The faithful frequented prominent temples to
honor Jupiter and Juno (cf. Nat. 2.45.1; 7.30.1; Ep. 95.47), and the gods’ images
were ubiquitously displayed on coins, in public spaces, and private dwellings.78
As a member of Rome’s élite,79 Seneca maintained the cultural status quo by
participating in traditional worship. In his dramatized suicide he offered a li-
bation to Jupiter (Tacitus, Ann. 15.64). However, Seneca also criticized popular
worship practices such as lighting lamps, scraping flesh, and offering sacrifices
and prayers, claiming that the gods do not need humans’ service but are wor-
shipped by those who know and imitate them (Ep. 95.47-50).
For Seneca, the true symbol of virtue is the philosopher who endures and
overcomes suffering, not the zealous temple patron (Ep. 67.12-13). In 64.9, he
suggests that it would be good practice to keep imagines of great philosophers

76 Cf. Wright, New Testament, 123-24; Tabb, Suffering, 214-16.

77 Translation by Susanna M. Braund, Seneca, De Clementia: Edited with Translation and
Commentary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 95.
78 See Keith Hopkins, A World Full of Gods: The Strange Triumph of Christianity (New York:
Free, 2000), ch. 1.
79 On Seneca’s “social universe,” see Paul Veyne, Seneca: The Life of a Stoic (New York: Rout-
ledge, 2003), 19.
104 Tabb

who are worthy of respect and honor. He calls Marcus Cato “the living im-
age of virtues” (virtutium viva imago), who exhibited moral virtue in his noble
suffering and death (Tranq. 16.1). Here Seneca may draw upon the customary
practice of Roman office holders leaving their heirs an imago, a waxen mask
representing his features to be displayed prominently at funerals and in the
atrium of the family home.80 These imagines “were powerful symbols in Ro-
man culture, bringing to mind the ancestors with their deeds and values.”81
Seneca sought to leave his friends an imago of his life (Tacitus, Ann. 15.62.1).82
Mayer comments, “He had every right to leave a waxen image, but that would
not have been good enough. Seneca wanted to be like Cato, a living image of
moral virtues.”83
Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are two defining symbols for Paul and other
first century Christians, and both encode a distinctly Christian understanding
of suffering. These symbolic activities, practiced by the earliest followers of the
crucified and risen Lord, rehearse foundational gospel stories and express and
reinforce central elements of their worldview and corporate identity.84
Baptism serves at least two principle symbolic functions. First, believers
are baptized εἰς Χριστὸν Ἰησοῦν (Rom 6:3)85 and thereby dramatize and iden-
tify with their Lord’s death and resurrection. Additionally, baptism marks be-
lievers’ initiation into Christ’s body, the church, and their reception of the
promised divine Spirit (1 Cor 12:13; cf. Gal 3:27-28; Eph 4:5). Much more could
be said about baptism;86 the point here is that the symbolic initiation ritual
of water baptism is a dramatic presentation of the death and new life of Jesus
and its salvific and ethical implications for believers.
Baptism into Christ marks believers’ initiation into the Christian commu-
nity, while believers regularly meet together to share what Paul calls “the Lord’s

80 Harriet I. Flower, Ancestor Masks and Aristocratic Power in Roman Culture (Oxford:
Clarendon, 1996), 64, 271-73.
81 Ibid., 35.
82 See Miriam T. Griffin, “Imago Vitae Suae,” in Seneca (ed. John G. Fitch; Oxford Readings in
Classical Studies; New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 23-58.
83 Mayer, “Exempla,” 315.
84 On praxis and symbols in early Christianity, see Wright, New Testament, 359-69; Luke
Timothy Johnson, Religious Experience in Earliest Christianity: A Missing Dimension in New
Testament Studies (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998), chs. 3, 5.
85 The phrase εἰς Χριστὸν Ἰησοῦν may be short hand for “into the name of Jesus” (cf. Matt
28:19; Acts 8:16) or may signify baptism “into union with Christ,” taking εἰς spatially. For
discussion see Moo, Romans, 359-60.
86 See the massive study by Everett Ferguson, Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology,
and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009).
Paul and Seneca on Suffering 105

Supper” (1 Cor 11:20). According to 11:23-26, gathered believers partake of bro-

ken bread to remember that Jesus suffered and died on their behalf (ὑπὲρ
ὑμῶν) and drink wine to remember “the new covenant” established by his
shed blood. As they participate in this symbolic meal, believers also “proclaim
the Lord’s death until he comes” (v. 26), thereby highlighting their salvation
through the cross of Christ and their “essentially eschatological existence”87 as
the people of God. Thus, the regular symbolic observance of the Lord’s Supper
dramatizes and celebrates the salvific significance of Jesus’ vicarious suffering
and shed blood on behalf of his people.

3 Conclusion: Suffering, Worldview, and Theology

This study began by considering Fitzgerald’s arguments that Paul’s peristasis

catalogues in the Corinthian correspondence share substantial affinities with
the hardships of the sage in Stoic writings. I noted several questions and cri-
tiques of Fitzgerald’s thesis and approach and then proposed worldview anal-
ysis as an alternative approach for comparing Seneca’s and Paul’s perspectives
on suffering. I examined how suffering relates to their views of humanity’s
vocation, to the world’s fundamental problem and its solution, and to their
expectations for the future, as well as suffering’s association with some key
worldview symbols for each author. We turn now to ask why Paul and Seneca
view suffering as they do. This question ultimately leads us back to their re-
spective understandings of the nature of God or the gods and the divine’s
relationship to human beings and their suffering.88
Seneca in De Providentia offers an extended treatment of human suffering
in light of divine providence, presented as a response to his friend’s theodicy
question: “You have asked me, Lucilius, why, if a Providence rules the world, it
still happens that many evils befall good men” (1.1).89 Motto and Clark call this
essay “his single-minded treatment of adversity,” in which Seneca unexpect-
edly “elects to defend both providence and misfortune.”90 Seneca responds to

87 Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987),
88 Wright, Paul, 1:27.
89 Lucilius’s question is reiterated in various ways throughout the essay: Prov. 2.1; 4.8; 5.3,
9; 6.1, 6. Cf. Louise Theron, “Progression of Thought in Seneca’s ‘De providentia’ c. VI,”
AClass 13 (1970): 61-72 at 62; Karlhans Abel, Bauformen in Senecas Dialogen. Fünf Struk-
turanalysen: dial. 6, 11, 12, 1 und 2 (Heidelberg: C. Winter, 1967), 98-99, who also includes
90 Motto and Clark, “Paradox,” 78.
106 Tabb

Lucilius by asserting that God intends to test, harden, and fit the good person
for divine service through suffering (1.6); further, he argues that though adver-
sities appear to be evils (mala) they are not truly so (3.1). Prov. 3.1 serves as a
summary of Seneca’s argument.91 First, so-called hardships are “for the good of
the persons themselves to whom they come” (cf. 3.2-4.16). Second, sufferings
benefit collective humanity (pro universis; cf. 5.1; 6.3). Third, good people “are
willing [volentibus] that these things should happen” (cf. 5.4-6a). Fourth, ad-
versities happen by Fate (cf. 5.6b-11). Finally, miserable circumstances cannot
make the good person miserable because “he despises externals” (6:1).
In Prov. 6.6 Seneca makes one of his most revealing statements about God
and suffering:

“Yet,” you say, “many sorrows, things dreadful and hard to bear, do befall
us.” Yes, because I could not withdraw you from their path, I have armed
your minds to withstand them all; endure with fortitude. In this you may
outstrip God [deum antecedatis]; he is exempt from enduring evil, while
you are superior to it [ille extra patientiam malorum est, vos supra patien-

Seneca consistently portrays God (deus) or Providence (providentia) positively

as “a just, beneficent, and kind being, one who can neither receive nor inflict
injury.”92 The Stoic God is extra patientiam malorum, outside of suffering, and
thus ἀπαθής, unaffected by suffering.93 Even if Seneca’s claims concerning the
wise person’s superiority to God may be rhetorical embellishment, his essen-
tial point is clear: human beings – unlike the gods – are not inherently virtuous
but learn and demonstrate virtue by enduring and overcoming suffering (Ep.
95.36; 124.14).94
Paul affirms that the Creator God, who entered into covenant with Israel,
has revealed not only his hidden purposes but also his divine identity in a
definitive and surprising way in the person of Jesus. Here we briefly consider
one crucial text that profoundly relates Paul’s theology to human suffering:

91 Following Ivano Dionigi, “Il ‘De Providentia’ di Seneca fra lingua e filosofia,” in ANRW II
36.7 (ed. Hildegard Temporini and Wolfgang Haase; New York: de Gruyter, 1994), 5399-5414
at 5405. In contrast, Grimal discerns three parts to the divisio (3.1b), essentially points one,
two, and five in Dionigi’s outline. “Le Providentia,” REA 52 (1950): 238-57 at 245-48.
92 Motto, Sourcebook, 45. Cf. Ep. 65.10; 95.49-50.
93 Ivano Dionigi, “La patientia: Seneca contro i cristiani,” AevumAnt 13 (2000): 413-29 at 426.
Cf. Aldo Setaioli, “Seneca and the Divine: Stoic Tradition and Personal Developments,”
IJCT 13 (2007): 333-68 at 366.
94 Cf. Hine, “Seneca,” 105-06.
Paul and Seneca on Suffering 107

Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God some-
thing to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by be-
coming obedient to death – even death on a cross! Therefore God ex-
alted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every
name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and
on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus
Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil 2:6-11)

First, though Jesus existed ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ, he willingly lowers himself by tak-
ing on μορφὴν δούλου, which is further clarified by the next clause ἐν ὁμοιώματι
ἀνθρώπων γενόμενος. Oakes writes, “Between being like God and being like a
slave, there is the widest status gap imaginable by Paul’s hearers. Paul is saying
that for Christ to become human meant that deep a drop in status.”95 Second,
in obedience to God Jesus humbles himself further in his utterly disgraceful,
shocking death – θανάτου δὲ σταυροῦ. Paul “saw the Messiah’s shameful cru-
cifixion as the paradoxical but utterly appropriate focal point of the whole
picture.”96 Third, God “highly exalted” Jesus after his suffering (alluding to the
servant in Isa 52:13), raising him to a place of universal authority and divine
honor (cf. Isa 45:23).97 Fourth, Paul presents Jesus’ disregard of personal sta-
tus, his volitional, self-lowering in service to others, and his obedient suffering
as a profound model for the suffering Philippian Christians to emulate: τοῦτο
φρονεῖτε ἐν ὑμῖν ὃ καὶ ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ (Phil 2:5).98
Thus, while Paul’s hardship lists may well share some formal similarities to
Stoic peristasis catalogues, the apostle’s worldview and theology of suffering
are quite different from Seneca’s. The one presents a radically Christological,
missiological, and eschatological approach to Christian suffering, while the
other understands suffering as an opportunity for moral improvement, self-
mastery, and demonstration of virtue in the here and now. The Stoic God is
extra patientiam malorum and looks on with wonder at the worthy spectacle

95 Peter Oakes, Philippians: From People to Letter (SNTSMS; Cambridge: Cambridge Univer-
sity Press, 2001), 196.
96 Wright, Paul, 2:687.
97 Cf. Richard Bauckham, God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament
(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 52-53.
98 Oakes, Philippians, 199-200, 207. Phil 1:27-30 suggests that the Philippian church is expe-
riencing opposition and suffering, particularly economic hardship according to Oakes.
108 Tabb

of great souls like Cato, who matched against fortune and emerged supra pati-
entiam (Prov. 6.6; cf. 2:7-9). The Christian God “did not spare his own Son but
gave him up for us all” (Rom 8:32). Consequently, believers worship the Lord
Jesus who became obedient unto death on a Roman cross, and then share in
his sufferings (Phil 2:8-11; 3:10). In conclusion, I agree with Lightfoot’s judicious

To the consistent disciple of Zeno the agony of Gethsemane could not

have appeared, as to the Christian it ever will appear, the most sublime
spectacle of moral sympathy, the proper consummation of a Divine life:
for insensibility to the sorrows and sufferings of others was the only pass-
port to perfection, as conceived in the Stoic ideal.99

99 Joseph B. Lightfoot, “St Paul and Seneca,” in Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians (6th ed.;
London: Macmillan, 1913), 270-328 at 297. I am grateful to Zach Howard, Matt Denzer, and
Joel Dougherty, who read this essay and offered helpful suggestions for improvement.
Benefiting Others and Benefit to Oneself: Seneca
and Paul on “Altruism”

John M.G. Barclay

Seneca and Paul both thought deeply about benefits or gifts – how to give
them, to whom, and why. Seneca’s De Beneficiis is the fullest extant treatise
on this topic from antiquity, and displays several of the core characteristics of
Stoic philosophy and method. From Paul’s letters we will confine our attention
to Philippians, a letter written partly in response to a benefit received (2:25-30;
4:10-20) and full of influential statements on this theme. Our question con-
cerns a complex topic in moral philosophy: is it moral to give benefits to oth-
ers that also bring benefit to oneself, or are these two, in principle, mutually
The term deployed in modern discussion of this problem, since its inven-
tion in the nineteenth century (by Auguste Comte), is “altruism”; its opposite
is “egoism” or “selfishness.” There are in fact stronger and weaker versions of
this notion, and if we use the term at all it is important to be clear what we
mean by it. The simplest, but also weaker, meaning of “altruism” is simply a
concern for others’ interests: an act is altruistic if it is performed fully for the
sake of others. But a stronger, and more radical, notion of “altruism” is also
possible and common in the modern era, drawing on a logic of mutual exclu-
sion: on this version a wholly “altruistic” act, which is purely “disinterested,”
must contain no element of “self-interest,” since self and other are construed
as rival beneficiaries of the same act. What is “purely altruisitic” on this under-
standing is an act given with no motivation for reward and no expectation of
return. Any circling of the benefit back to the giver would dilute, sully, or even
cancel the gift. Since any element of self-interest would compromise the gift,
this form of “altruism” requires selflessness in the sense of self-sacrifice: any
benefit that accrues to the giver, even in the form of gratitude or honour, is
suspect, since it threatens to contaminate the pure intention of the gift.1

1 For the sake of simplicity, I leave to one side here other possible connotations of “altruism”
common in the modern era, such as: giving benefit to others without any discrimination;
doing the best for others as they define what is best for them. See the discussion in C. Gill,
“Altruism or Reciprocity in Greek Ethical Philosophy?,” in Reciprocity in Ancient Greece (ed.
C. Gill, N. Postlethwaite, and R. Seaford; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 304-28.

© Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2017 | DOI 10.1163/9789004341364 007

110 Barclay

A case can be made that this stronger, radicalised, notion of “altruism” is

the product of distinctively modern trends in theology and philosophy. In his
concern to break with the traditional “circle” of reciprocity in human relations
to God, in which works of piety were expected to elicit grace or win merit from
God, Luther figured God’s relation to humanity as entirely unilateral, and gave
impetus to the ideal of the human “one-way” gift, given entirely for the sake
of the other, without expectation of reward either from the human recipient
or from God. Thus “the believer lives only for others and not for himself . . .
considering nothing except the need and advantage of the neighbour.”2 On
this point, one can trace a line from Luther to Kant, who placed the moral
basis of an action in duty alone, disallowing any prudential considerations of
one’s own benefit or any hint of using others as a means to one’s own ends:
“to be beneficent, that is, to promote according to one’s means the happiness
of others in need, without hoping for something in return, is everyone’s duty.”3
This philosophy of a purely disinterested act can be shown to match a series of
social and economic developments in the West, through which the notion or
gift or benefit has been ideologically separated from commodity or exchange,
such that gifts are defined as disinterested, expecting no return, free of any
trace of quid pro quo, while the market is associated with exchange, a reci-
procity characterised by mutual interest and selfishness.4 From here one may
trace modern notions of the “pure gift,” and its fullest, characteristically post-
modern, incarnation in Derrida’s impossible gift – the gift that inevitably cir-
culates but thereby disqualifies itself, since “for there to be a gift, there must be
no reciprocity, return, exchange, countergift, or debt.”5 We may take this as the

2 M. Luther, “Freedom of a Christian,” in Luther’s Works (55 vols.; ed. J. Pelikan and H.L.
Lehmann; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1955-86), 31:364-65. Cf. P. Melanchthon, Paul’s Letter
to the Colossians (trans. D.C. Parker; Sheffield: Almond Press, 1989), 34: ”The world is gen-
erous . . . in the hope of getting more back . . . But the saints do good because they know
that this is what God wants, and because they value his will above the promised rewards.”
Tyndale writes in similar terms that whatever we do “we must do freely, after the example
of Christ, without any other respect, save our neighbour’s wealth only; and neither look for
reward in the earth, nor yet in heaven” (Doctrinal Treatises and Introductions to Different Por-
tions of the Holy Scriptures [1525, cited in P. Leithart, Gratitude: An Intellectual History (Waco:
Baylor University Press, 2014)], 104-05).
3 I. Kant, Die Metaphysik der Sitten, 6.453 (translation from The Metaphysics of Morals [trans.
M. Gregor; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996]).
4 See especially J. Parry, “The Gift, the Indian Gift, and the ‘Indian Gift,’” Man 21 (1986): 453-73.
5 J. Derrida, Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money (trans. P. Kamuf; Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1992), 7.
Seneca and Paul on “Altruism” 111

logical, though paradoxical, extension of the strong, Western notion of “altru-

ism” as a concern for others that in principle excludes any concern or benefit
for oneself.6
When this notion is mapped onto pre-modern discourse on the morality of
benevolence, we are likely to judge the latter as deficient in crucial respects.
The Kantian suspicion of “eudaimonism” (the ancient philosophical goal of
happiness) has been properly resisted by Annas and others, who have insisted
that the ancient quest for self-realization in “happiness” is not a form of self-
ishness.7 But there is still a tendency to measure ancient ethics by the degree
to which they adumbrate, or approximate to, a strong form of “altruism” in
which other-regard must exclude actual or potential benefit to oneself. Fol-
lowing Gill and others, I think it is better to resist the lure of this distinctively
modern ideal, and to remain open to the possibility that, in ancient terms, a
morally conceived and achieved benefit for others is situated in a social matrix
of solidarity or reciprocity; in such a context, benefits are designed to create or
cement relations of mutuality, such that a return to the giver does not diminish
or pollute the gift, but constitutes its fulfilment.8 In what follows I will argue
that both Seneca and Paul exemplify “altruism” in this weaker, pre-modern
form, since both encourage generosity and other-concern without the exclu-
sive self-other antithesis that characterizes modern discourse. In several ways,
however, they differ in their configuration of this phenomenon: Seneca’s con-
cern for the virtuous spirit of the giver leads him to focus strongly on motiva-
tion, even if the proper effects of the gift are mutual benefit, while Paul’s tri-
angulation of all relationships by reference to God/Christ leads to a configura-
tion of gift that is both more self-sacrificial and (paradoxically) more brazenly
“self-interested” than Seneca’s. The comparison thus draws out a set of nu-
anced differences which go to the heart of the difference between a Stoic and
a Christian configuration of human flourishing, without creating the kind of
absolute contrast that has sometimes characterized the discussion of Seneca
and Paul.

6 For fuller analysis of modern Western developments in understanding of the gift, see Lei-
thart, Gratitude, and J.M.G. Barclay, Paul and the Gift (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 2015), 51-63
and (on Luther) 109-16.
7 J. Annas, The Morality of Happiness (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993).
8 C. Gill, Personality in Greek Epic, Tragedy and Philosophy: The Self in Dialogue (Oxford: Claren-
don Press, 1996), 321-99; idem, “Altruism or Reciprocity,” 304-28.
112 Barclay

1 Seneca, Benefit to Others, and Social Reciprocity

Seneca’s De Beneficiis is driven by the concern to ensure that benefits are given
and given well, for right motives and with the right results; poorly given gifts
destroy the virtue of the giver (benevolence) and diminish or destroy the po-
tential virtue of the recipient (gratitude).9 Very early Seneca insists that one
should persist in giving benefits even if they are not repaid: to desist because
of the failure of a return would signal that “the giving was for the sake of be-
ing repaid” (dedit ut reciperet) – which is a good reason for the recipient to be
ungrateful (1.1.10). To give for the sake of the return, or even “in the hope of
getting repaid” (spe recipiendi) would be more like a loan (negotiatio) than a
gift (beneficium); indeed “it is the mark of a benefit not to even think about a
return” (cuius proprium est nihil de reditu cogitare, 2.31.3). Those who give ben-
efits imitate the gods, who need no return and therefore give without thought
of recompense; “those who seek repayment imitate loan-sharks” (feneratores,
It is clear already that the focus lies on intention and motivation, the ani-
mus or voluntas of the giver. The theme receives specially pointed treatment
in book 4, where Seneca enters into a diatribe against the Epicureans, and
distinguishes the Stoic position on virtue very clearly from theirs. Where the
Epicureans made the final good “pleasure,” Seneca insists that virtue is to be
pursued for no other purpose than for its own sake (per se expetenda). Virtue
is not to be pursued for any sort of profit (in mercedem; quicquam venale,
4.1.2, 3), and it is not a matter of one’s own utilitas or commodum (4.1.2-3;
4.3.1-2 etc.). Commodum is probably rightly translated “profit” or “advantage”;
to translate utilitas as “interest” or “self-interest” (Griffin and Inwood) might
suggest a wider meaning than the Latin suggests, and could evoke the modern
antithesis between “self-interest” and “disinterest.” As we shall see, Seneca ex-
pects that benefits, rightly distributed, will tie society together, to the benefit
of all, and he does expect givers to have an “interest” in the good reciprocity
that occurs in friendship. What he is against is the individual being motivated

9 For fuller discussion of the strategies of this text, see M. Griffin, “Seneca’s Pedagogic Strategy:
Letters and De Beneficiis,” in Greek and Roman Philosophy 100 BC – 200 AD (ed. R. Sorabji and
R.W. Sharples; London: Institute of Classical Studies, University of London, 2007), 89-113;
B. Inwood, “Politics and Paradox in Seneca’s De Beneficiis,” in Justice and Generosity (ed.
A. Laks and M. Schofield; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 241-65; cf. Barclay,
Paul and the Gift, 45-51. The Loeb translation (by J.W. Basore) is good, but I use here the
translation in Lucius Annaeus Seneca, On Benefits (trans. M. Griffin and B. Inwood; Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 2011).
Seneca and Paul on “Altruism” 113

by the potential profit or utility of particular benefit-acts. It pays Seneca to

(mis)represent the Epicureans as motivated by the desire for an easy, pleasur-
able life. To take thought not for where your gift will give most benefit, but for
where it will get most gain, is pure money-lending (4.3.3), motivated by noth-
ing other than utilitas and “sordid calculation” (4.11.2); it is as if we were giving
to ourselves (4.13.3).
By contrast, what is virtuous or honourable (honestum) is properly to be
sought for its own sake, and for this alone. If we may speak of gain, it is the
gain of having done the good (4.1.3); one gives in order to avoid not giving (ne
non det, 4.12.5), since “what is honourable we pursue for no other reason than
itself” (honestum propter nullam aliam causam quam propter ipsum sequimur,
4.9.3). Since we cannot determine, despite our best endeavours, that what we
give will actually turn out to be the best for the recipient, the focus here is
on what we can determine, that is our own will (voluntas) or spirit (animus)
as givers. The virtue, in other words, is not the benefit itself but benevolence,
the spirit or intention with which the gift is given. In accordance with Stoic
value theory, what are conventionally considered “goods” (external or phys-
ical goods) are only indifferent, or at best to be preferred: the only genuine
good is the good of the animus, in this case the animus both of the giver and
of the recipient. Hence “it is the belief of the agents which ultimately deter-
mines the moral status of the action,” and “true benefits are purely intelligible
Thus the fundamental antithesis in Seneca’s theory is not between what
benefits another and what benefits myself, but between an intention directed
towards nothing other than virtue itself and an intention to bring benefit to
myself: the antithesis is not self-other, but self-virtue. Because the focus is
on intention, a very high demand is made of thought” (cogitare), and careful
scrutiny has to be made of exactly what givers think they are doing when they
act. To introduce their own utility into this thought-process would sully the
gift, because to aim for virtue is to aim for virtue alone. But this is not the same
as saying that in principle and in practice virtue requires self-negation, or that
the more the interests of others are served, the less satisfaction there will be of
my own. There is no direct contrast between what benefits me and what ben-
efits another, only between calculation for my benefit and intention focused
on benevolence alone. On that basis there is no necessary and in principle an-
tithesis between others’ interests and my own: the benevolence I intend may
very well turn out to benefit us both. In book 6 (sections 12-24), Seneca dis-
cusses the case where a recipient has to react to a gift that turns out to have

10 Inwood, “Politics and Paradox,” 255-56.

114 Barclay

benefited both the recipient and the giver. Against our modern expectations,
he should not, according to Seneca, treat the gift as sullied or reduced. If the
giver gave totally for himself (and any benefit to us was incidental), then in-
deed it does not count as a benefit, since he has acted purely like a merchant,
thinking of quantum lucri sibi and not of quantum auxilium mihi (6.12.2, 14.4).
On the other hand, “I am not so unfair as to feel no obligation to a person who,
when he was useful [utilis] to me, was also useful to himself, for I do not de-
mand that he consult my own interests without regard for his own [ut mihi sine
respectu sui consulat]; in fact I even hope that a benefit conferred on me has
done even more good to the giver, provided that he gave with an eye to both
of us and divided his benefit between himself and me” (6.13.1). At first sight,
what is said here appears to be at odds with the strong statements against util-
itas in book 4, the contradiction perhaps representing Seneca’s self-confessed
tactic of using hyperbole to make what is actually a less demanding point (see
7.22-25). But the contrast in tone is not, I think, a flat contradiction. In book 4
Seneca contrasted a commitment to virtue with a concern for oneself, but he
did not figure the benefits themselves as being beneficial only to the recipient
and entailing no benefit at all for the giver. Here in book 6, he allows that ben-
efits can be multiple and mutual, and the recipient is to act (in gratitude) in
accordance with the fact that the giver did give fully (even if not exclusively)
for the sake of the recipient. For Seneca, “it is the height of stinginess not to
call something a benefit unless it inflicts some hardship on the donor” (6.13.2).
In other words, the assessment of benefits is not a zero-sum calculation
(the more to one, the less to the other). There may indeed be occasions when
giving requires real sacrifice (5.11), but benefits are meant to form or further
friendships. “Since the essence of friendship is to treat your friend equally
with yourself, you have to consider both at the same time [utrique simul con-
sulendum est]. If a friend is in need, I will give, but not in such a way as to
become needy myself. If he is about to die, I will try to rescue him, but not
at the cost of my own life – unless I will thereby purchase the safety of a
great man or a great cause” (2.15.1). Here it is made clear that the purpose
of beneficence is not self-negation: to die for a friend would be to terminate
that friendship, and thus to destroy the very thing that a benefit is intended
to achieve. The final qualification (“unless I will thereby purchase the safety
of a great man or a great cause”) is interesting, and we will return to it when
we come to Paul. It leaves room for the noble death on behalf of one’s coun-
try, a phenomenon strongly valorized by the Roman passion for honor.11 But

11 See C. Barton, Roman Honor: The Fire in the Bones (Berkeley: University of California
Press, 2001).
Seneca and Paul on “Altruism” 115

within relations of friendship, where reciprocity is the dominant social prin-

ciple, it would rarely make sense for one party to destroy itself for the sake of
the other. Once again it is clear that while the commitment to benevolence is
not to be clouded by subtle calculations of utility for oneself, this does not put
the interests of the two parties (giver and recipient) into direct competition.
It is possible to imagine (even hope) that the virtue of benevolence, which
brings benefit to others, might also in fact, through the friendship and “equal-
ity” that it creates, bring benefit also to me. Exclusive devotion to the virtue
of benevolence does not entail the exclusion of any possible benefit to givers
There is joy, Seneca says, in giving (1.6.1; 2.2.2), the pleasure of a good con-
science (4.12.3) in knowing that one’s will is directed towards virtue. In the
special Stoic sense of a good emotion, joy is the proper response to the pres-
ence of moral good in the world, and does not depend on any specific good
accruing to the virtuous. Nonetheless, the aim of benevolence is to create grat-
itude in the recipient, and knowing that the recipient is grateful is itself a
cause of joy. “Once we have decided to accept, we should do so with a cheerful
acknowledgement of our pleasure. This should be made apparent to the giver
so that he gets an immediate satisfaction [ut fructum praesentem capiat]; see-
ing a friend happy is a good reason to be happy oneself, but making a friend
happy is an even better reason” (2.22.1). This mutuality of happiness (laetitia)
among friends is a reason to ensure that the gift is not secret or anonymous,
but is known and seen by the recipient. The giver should certainly not harp on
about the benefit, advertising it to gain maximum publicity (2.11.1-3); but she
should expect that the recipients will speak openly about the benefit and will
know themselves tied or obliged to the giver (2.7.2). “Let us consider what we
can give that will bring the greatest pleasure and what the recipient will think
of frequently, so that we will be in his thoughts whenever the gift is” (2.11.6).
For this reason it is better to give a gift that lasts, so that not just the bene-
fit but also the personal ties it creates may be long-lasting (2.12.1-3). For this
reason, an anonymous gift is a rare exception, justified only if there is some
special reason why it would harm the recipient to know the identity of the
giver (2.10). The norm is that the recipient should know the donor and thus be
linked to him, in gratitude and in friendship. There is a reason why the Three
Graces are depicted in loose-fitting, see-through garments: because “benefits
want to be in full view” (1.3.5).
At several points Seneca discusses whether gratitude is a sufficient response
to a benefit, or whether the recipient should also give a return gift. It is cer-
tainly wrong, in most cases, for the giver to ask for a return: the gratitude of
the recipient is the virtue that gifts aim to create, and that alone is enough.
116 Barclay

Gratitude, we might say, is the essential part of the return; anything else is
surplus or inessential (2.31-35). Given the Stoic theory of “goods,” in which the
return of any res would not itself count as a “good,” and is in any case de-
pendent on the vagaries of Fortune rather than the good will of the agent, we
might expect Seneca to discount completely any return other than gratitude
itself. But in fact he does encourage recipients to return something to their
donors as and when they can (2.31-35); they are not to consider themselves
free of obligations just by accepting the gift with gratitude. Using an image
derived from Chrysippus, Seneca speaks of gift-giving as a ball-game, in which
one throws the ball in such a way that it may be caught and returned (2.17.3-5,
32.1; 7.18.1).
Thus Seneca does not share the modern assumption that the return of the
gift threatens to undermine the quality of the gift as gift. “It is just as important
to accept repayment for a benefit as it is to avoid demanding it. The ideal donor
is someone who gave readily, who never requested payment but was delighted
when it came, who – having genuinely forgotten what he gave in the first place
– accepted the repayment as though he were himself the beneficiary” (2.17.7).
In extreme circumstances, it is acceptable to ask for repayment, if it is abso-
lutely necessary for one’s own welfare (5.20.6), though, ironically, one is likely
to get back more precisely by not asking for it (5.1). Thus we find in Seneca no
idealization of a “unilateral” gift, no rebuffing or avoidance of return for the
sake of “pure altruism.” Even the gods receive return gifts (sacrifices), though
strictly speaking these are non-necessary (4.2, 25).
The reason why return gifts are not refused, even when they are not de-
manded, is that the purpose of benefit-giving is to create bonds of friendship,
whose purpose is the solidarity of mutual benefit.12 Benefit-giving more than
anything else “binds together human society” (quae maxime humanam soci-
etatem alligat, 1.4.2); it is not just a vehicle for individual virtue. Alongside
reason, human fellowship (societas) is the greatest gift of God to the human
race (4.18.2-4), and in that fellowship one should not only expect but aim for
“mutual pleasure” (mutuum gaudium, 2.31.2). Since mutual friendship is the
most important outcome of gift-giving, its most important commodity is not
the things given or exchanged, but the people who are brought into a mutually
supportive relationship. As the story of Aeschines and Socrates reveals, poverty
does not inhibit this goal: since Aeschines had nothing to offer Socrates, he

12 For proper stress on friendship, see T. Engberg-Pedersen, “Gift-Giving and Friendship:

Seneca and Paul in Romans 1-8 on the Logic of God’s χάρις and its Human Response,” HTR
101 (2008): 15-44.
Seneca and Paul on “Altruism” 117

offered himself, but thereby “this talented young man found a way to give
Socrates to himself” (2.9.1). In giving to another he ended up giving to himself,
not in material goods but in the friendship he thereby acquired. Seneca does
not shrink from this conclusion in embarrassment, as Derrida would expect
us to do: he positively embraces it as the best form of gift. This friendship is
an extension of the natural, human desire to seek what does us good, and to
avoid what does us harm (5.9.1); it does not entail the negation or the denial of
the self.13
Thus Seneca combines what might seem to us, at first glance, two incom-
patible positions: that the individual should pursue the virtue of benevolence
for its own sake, and without regard to her own utilitas, but that she thereby
cements and secures a tie of friendship whose purpose is a mutual flourish-
ing, without zero-sum calculation by which a benefit to one offsets a benefit
to the other. The first point, we have seen, arises from making the goal virtue
itself and from referring everything to the intention of the benefactor (cum
omnia ad animum referamus, 2.31.1): what the giver thinks of in the act of giv-
ing is fully and entirely the well-being of the recipient. But when one pulls
back from this individual motivation, one sees that the system in which such
beneficence operates is designed not to let the gift disappear in self-negating
Derridean perfection, but to let it create or cement relations of solidarity or
reciprocity in which the game of “throw and catch” is sustained through multi-
ple iterations. The relation between these two motifs is not that of ideal vs.
compromise, nor of individual act vs. life-course as a whole, nor of an ar-
ticulated ideal of self-negation which deceptively masks a more basic reality
of self-interest.14 It is partly a question of scrutinising, first and in detail, the
thoughts and intentions of the actors in the drama, and then of watching the
effects of their total commitment to virtue in the mutual benefit it brings;
and partly of noting that their commitment to virtue itself does not require a
competitive relation between the interests of the donors and the beneficiaries.
According to Seneca, my total commitment to benevolence does not require
that the maximization of another’s interests will require the minimization of
my own.

13 Seneca probably alludes to the Stoic notion of oikeiōsis at this point: “No one gives a
benefit to himself, but rather he obeys his own nature by which he is inclined to feel for
himself an affection that leads him to take the greatest care to avoid what will do him
harm and seek what will do him good” (5.9.1; see Griffin and Inwood ad loc.)
14 This latter is suggested by Blanton, following the analysis of gift-relations by P. Bourdieu:
see T.R. Blanton, “The Benefactor’s Account-book: The Rhetoric of Gift Reciprocation
according to Seneca and Paul,” NTS 59 (2013): 396-414.
118 Barclay

2 Paul and the Triangulation of Social Relations with God/Christ

At first sight, Paul’s letter to the Philippians seems to provide plenty of ev-
idence to support the notion that the Christian ethic demands a notion of
“altruism” that supports the modern concept of the gift-without-return and
the sacrifice of one’s own interests in the interests of others. Paul requires
that “in humility you consider each other more significant than yourselves”
(τῇ ταπεινοφροσύνῃ ἀλλήλους ἡγούμενοι ὑπερέχοντας ἑαυτῶν, 2:3) and issues the
instruction: “let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the inter-
ests of others” (μὴ τὰ ἑαυτῶν ἕκαστοι σκοποῦντες ἀλλὰ τὰ ἑτέρων ἕκαστοι, 2:4; on
the textual variant, see below). In the same chapter Timothy is commended
because, uniquely, he cares about the Philippians’ interests, while all others
care about their own (γνησίως τὰ περὶ ὑμῶν μεριμνήσει· οἱ πάντες γὰρ τὰ ἑαυτῶν
ζητοῦσιν, 2:20-21). A similar antithesis seems to be articulated in other letters,
where Paul calls believers to seek not their own interests but others’ (1 Cor
10:24), and where he uses himself as an example (“just as I please everyone in
everything, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, so that they may
be saved,” 1 Cor 10:33). Elsewhere, he commends love because it does not seek
its own interests (οὐ ζητεῖ τὰ ἑαυτῆς, 1 Cor 13:5), meaning, presumably, that it
does not seek the interests of the person who loves.
Returning to Philippians, the exhortation to look to the interests of others
is followed immediately by the Christ-hymn (2:6-11), according to which Christ
did not consider equality with God something to be taken advantage of (if that
is the right translation of ἁρπαγμόν), but “emptied himself” (2:7) and “humbled
himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (2:8).
However one translates 2:5 (τοῦτο φρονεῖτε ἐν ὑμῖν ὃ καὶ ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ), it is
hard to deny that there is some connection between the behaviour of Christ
depicted here and the ethical exhortations that precede this hymn (see below).
If one looks elsewhere, Paul clearly draws a parallel between Christ, “who did
not please himself” (Rom 15:3), who “being rich, made himself poor” (2 Cor
8:9), and the self-sacrificial behaviour expected of believers, who also must
not “please ourselves” but rather “please our neighbour for the good, for their
upbuilding” (Rom 15:1-2). And “self-sacrifice” does not seem too strong a word:
back in Philippians, Paul declares himself happy to renounce his preference
(to depart and be with Christ) for the sake of the Philippians (1:20-26), and to
be “poured out as a libation over the sacrifice and offering of your faith” (2:17).
He commends Epaphroditus whose service to Paul on behalf of the Philippi-
ans led to his illness during his travels, such that he nearly died: “he came close
to death for the work of Christ, risking his life to make up for those services
that you could not give me” (2:30). Everything here looks like self-abnegation
and one-way gift.
Seneca and Paul on “Altruism” 119

Two things, however, should give us pause. First, the instructions about
putting others’ interests first are spoken to everybody about everybody in the
community (2:1-4). That is, they form part of a larger vision about the mutual
construction of a social entity wider than the individual. And second, there is a
third party brought into the discussion, since it concerns not only the interests
of one and another, but also the interests of God or Christ: as the antithesis in
2:21 puts it, everyone apart from Timothy seeks their own interests, and not the
interests of Jesus Christ (τὰ Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, 2:21). Before we draw connections to
a modern form of “altruism,” we need to attend carefully to these two factors
in Pauline thought.
The first concerns Paul’s primary ideal, which is not the exercise of solo
virtue but the formation of mutually constructive communities. Philippians
2:4 contains a notable textual variant. The text cited above sets the interests of
one party in contrast to the interests of others (μὴ τὰ ἑαυτῶν ἕκαστοι σκοποῦντες
ἀλλὰ τὰ ἑτέρων), as if they stood in a directly competitive relationship. That is
the text found in some significant largely Western texts (D*.c F G K pc it vgcl),
but there is another reading of wider attestation and perhaps greater strength:
μὴ τὰ ἑαυτῶν ἕκαστοι σκοποῦντες ἀλλὰ καὶ τὰ ἑτέρων (P46 A B C D2 Ψ075. 0278.
33. 1739. 1881 etc.). The addition of καί would seem to change the meaning: “let
each of you look not to your own interests, but also to the interests of others,”
which would suggest that the two sets of interest are not placed in direct an-
tithesis but added to each other.15 Thus the fault is not self-concern as such,
but the placing of one’s own interests before or above the interests of others.16
One could argue each way on which is the more likely original reading, and
which way a scribe might be inclined to alter the sense.17 In fact, even if the
καί is included, that does not settle things. Against the more usual translation

15 Of course “interests” is not the only possible meaning of τὰ ἑαυτῶν/ἑτέρων (interpreters

have suggested “point of view,” “rights” “needs,” or even “virtues”), but the parallels in
Paul cited above (not least in Phil 2:21) seem to suggest a meaning like that offered here.
For discussion, see G.W. Hansen, The Letter to the Philippians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,
2009), 116-18.
16 So P.T. O’Brien, The Epistle to the Philippians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 185: “Paul
does not prohibit any interest in one’s own affairs. It is the selfish preoccupation with
them that he condemns”; and G. Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (Grand Rapids: Eerd-
mans, 1995), 190: “Paul’s own intent . . . is not concerned with whether one ever ‘looks out
for oneself’ – the ‘also’ in the final line assumes that one will do that under any circum-
stances – but with the basic orientation of one’s life.”
17 For contextual arguments against the inclusion of καί, see B. Witherington, Paul’s Letter to
the Philippians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 131, refer-
ring to others in support. For strong arguments for its inclusion, see O’Brien, Philippians,
164; T. Engberg-Pedersen, “Radical Altruism in Philippians 2:4,” in Early Christianity and
120 Barclay

(“also”), Engberg-Pedersen has argued, citing classical parallels, that the word
could convey emphasis, so that the sentence means “looking not to your own
interests, but precisely to the interests of others.”18 There are, to my knowledge,
no unambiguous Pauline parallels to this usage, but it is clear that the empha-
sis in the passage is on making the focus of concern primarily the interests of
In the end, arguments on the text and meaning of this one phrase will prob-
ably remain inconclusive and our attention should focus on the wider con-
text. And here it is clear that even if each person is to look to others’ interests
rather than their own, this is said in a social context where the primary goal
is social solidarity and thus the collective interests of everyone. In this com-
munity the goal is unity of mind and purpose, a common love, a fellowship
(κοινωνία) in which compassion and sympathy are shared (2:1-3). It would be
unthinkable in this context that one member would be allowed to suffer at the
expense of the others, because each person would have everyone else looking
out for their interests. Thus the call to humility and to regard others as more
significant than themselves is addressed to all in mutuality (ἀλλήλους ἡγούμενοι
ὑπερέχοντας ἑαυτῶν, 2:3): if it is considered a one-way gift, each one-way initia-
tive is matched by a similar and equal benefit coming from the other direction.
This articulation of mutuality (ἀλλήλους or ἀλλήλοις) occurs so frequently (32
times in the undisputed Pauline letters) that we are apt to overlook it, but it is
a significant principle, and the product of careful reflection. The call to free-
dom is a call to “love one another” (Gal 5:13; Rom 12:10; 13:8), and believers who
greet “one another with a holy kiss” (Rom 16:16; 1 Cor 16:20 etc.) are expected to
“encourage one another” (1 Thess 4:18) and “warn one another” (Rom 15:14) in a
system of mutual support and correction. The notion of “bearing one another’s
burdens” (Gal 6:2) implies that there is no strong and self-sufficient individual,
who helps the weak: all are bound together in need, as well as in support.19 Of
course, the fullest exposition of this principle of reciprocity, and its social ram-

Classical Culture: Comparative Studies in Honor of Abraham Malherbe (ed. J. Fitzgerald,

T. Olbricht, and L.M. White; Leiden: Brill, 2003), 197-214 at 199-200.
18 See Engberg-Pedersen, “Radical Altruism,” 200-04. Cf. M. Bockmuehl, The Epistle to the
Philippians (London: A&C Black, 1997), 113-14, who appeals to a grammatical notion of
“contrastive emphasis” with some examples from the LXX.
19 There are signs that this emphasis on mutuality is a conscious social strategy on Paul’s
part, and not just a verbal tic in his articulation of ethics. At the beginning of Romans
he begins to say how much he is looking forward to visiting Rome in order to strengthen
them with some “spiritual gift,” but then corrects himself to say how they will be “mutu-
ally encouraged by the faith that is in one another, both yours and mine” (Rom 1:11-12).
Since Paul’s relationship with the Roman churches is delicate, this move clearly recog-
Seneca and Paul on “Altruism” 121

ifications, is the Pauline metaphor of the body (1 Corinthians 12; Romans 12).
Here, the members of the body are explicitly described as bound together in
mutual contribution and mutual need. No part can say it is self-sufficient, and
none can be dispensed with or disparaged as superfluous: all the parts of the
body are meant to care for one another to the same degree and in the same
way (τὸ αὐτὸ ὑπὲρ ἀλλήλων μεριμνῶσιν, 1 Cor 12:25).20
The social solidarity of the community thus entails the reciprocity in which
each is expected to receive as well as to give. The κοινωνία in which Paul and the
Philippians flourish is explicitly figured as a λόγος δόσεως καὶ λήμψεως (4:15),
and that does not mean that one side does all the giving and the other all the
receiving.21 Although Paul says that he could have done without the gift that
Epaphroditus brought on behalf of the Philippians (4:11-13), it is not clear that
he could have gone without the support and care that that gift represented
(cf. 2 Cor 11:14).22 He does not push it away in embarrassment as spoiling the
purity of his contribution towards them, and there are signs that without their
flourishing his own flourishing would be severely impeded. If they function
well as a community that would, he says, “complete my joy” (2:2). He wants to
rejoice with them, as his joy and crown (2:18; 4:1). While he is willing to undergo
much on their behalf, their success is not in inverse proportion to his. Indeed,
there are strong statements here about Paul’s own “gain” (1:21; 3:8) and what he
hopes to attain (3:12-14), which suggest that the model he sets before them is
not, ultimately, a form of self-negation. But how the Philippians’ interests and
his come together in this way is only fully illuminated when we see also the
second key feature noted above: the inclusion of God/Christ in the discussion
of everyone’s interests.
As we have noted, Paul speaks of three kinds of interest in 2:20-21: the inter-
ests of others (περὶ ὑμῶν), the interests of oneself (τὰ ἑαυτῶν) and the interests
of Jesus Christ (τὰ Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ), and the question is how all three relate to

nizes the power-claim inherent in the promise to give something to someone: Paul backs
off from making himself patron of the churches, anticipating instead a mutual patronage,
where each will have something to contribute to the other.
20 Cf. Engberg-Pedersen’s emphasis (“Radical Altruism,” 202-11) that the movement Paul
wants is from an “I”-concern to a “we”-concern. And note that this is different from a
movement from an “I”-concern to a “you”-concern, in which the “you” does not include
the “I” nor pay equal and reciprocal attention to the interests of the “I.”
21 On the meaning of this phrase, and the financial connotations with which Paul’s term
κοινωνία could resonate, see J.M. Oregeau, Paul’s Koinonia with the Philippians: A Socio-
Historical Investigation of a Pauline Economic Partnership (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014).
22 See J.M.G. Barclay, “Security and Self-Sufficiency: A Comparison of Paul and Epictetus,”
Ex Auditu 24 (2008): 60-72.
122 Barclay

each other. If Paul is committed to the Philippians, it is clear that he is com-

mitted first and foremost to Christ: “for me to live is Christ” (1:21). Paul’s chief
concern in his imprisonment is that Christ is preached (1:15-18), and whether
he ends up alive or dead what matters is that “Christ is magnified” (1:20). Wider
than that, the final aim is that God is glorified (1:11; 2:11; 4:20), since the worship
of God is the proper purpose of “the circumcision” (3:3). Similarly, Epaphrodi-
tus’ risky service had a purpose deeper than either Paul’s or the Philippians’
interests: it was “on account of the work of Christ” (διὰ τὸ ἔργον Χριστοῦ, 2:30).
It is important to recognise here that Christ/God are transcendent actors, in-
dependent of the human actors in this drama: it is God who is at work in
the Philippians from start to finish (1:6; 2:13); Paul has been seized by Christ
(3:12); and he survives only because of the One who strengthens him (4:13).
In other words all interactions on the human social level are situated within
the domain of a third, divine actor, on a trajectory of shared grace (1:7) and a
narrative time-line in which it is guaranteed that God/Christ will be victori-
ous (2:10-11; 3:20-21). Thus, whatever investments are made to one another in
mutual self-giving are triangulated by, and incorporated within, the relation of
each party to Christ or God. One serves the others’ interests not for their sake
in isolation, but for their sake in their relation to God. Similarly, however one
views one’s own interests will be determined by one’s standing in relation to
Thus, whatever Paul (or Epaphroditus) gives to the Philippians is designed
to deepen the Philippians’ relationship to Christ – it is in the Philippians’ in-
terests only inasmuch as it solidifies the link between them and Christ. If Paul
is spared and visits them again, it would be for the sake of their progress and
joy in faith (εἰς τὴν ὑμῶν προκοπὴν καὶ χαρὰν τῆς πίστεως, 1:25). Indeed, it would
be hard to imagine anything benefiting them that did not contribute to their
“salvation” (1:28; 2:13), fostering their obedience to the Saviour and Lord who
would ultimately transform their existence with resurrection power (3:20-21).
Thus Paul’s service to them is part of his, and their, service to Christ: what they
all want is the advance of the gospel (1:5, 7, 12, 16; 4:3). In that sense, there is
no ultimate conflict between his deepest interests and theirs, because they are
caught up together in allegiance to a common Lord (2:10-11). This is more than
just (as in Stoicism) a common commitment to virtue, because the Lord here
served is an independent, third agent (who may demand things that go against
one’s present, apparently reasonable preferences), and the horizon stretches
beyond death to the eschaton. Even within this life, Paul will prioritize the
benefit others will receive from Christ over the benefit they may receive from
him. When the Philippians’ gift reaches Paul, he looks beyond the relation of
mutual κοινωνία that is strengthened by their generosity so as to figure their
Seneca and Paul on “Altruism” 123

gift as, first and foremost, an expression of their relationship to God. It is a

“fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God” (4:18): since it is
primarily such a transaction with God, he looks to God to “fully satisfy every
need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ” (4:19). Thus even the
Philippians’ gift to Paul brings benefit to themselves, and is accepted on those
terms, since every feature of their human interaction is reconfigured by the
relationship to God. Looking to others’ interests could thus involve, paradoxi-
cally, allowing them to be benefactors in giving to oneself!23
This triangulation affects also the understanding of one’s own interest. Paul
is prepared to forego many things, even his own life, but that does not mean
that he foregoes his own self – at least the “self” that has been grasped by and
is destined for Christ. The reconfiguration of value described in 3:2-11 is not
ultimately a matter of self -renunciation, because its purpose is “gain” in the
sense “that I may gain Christ” (3:8). The devaluation of “earthly things” (3:19)
and the renunciation of every boast “in the flesh” (3:3) are integral to the recon-
stitution of the self that takes place when a person is “seized” by Christ (3:12).
Thereafter one may speak freely of “gain” (1:21), of pressing on to “seize” and to
attain the prize (3:12-14), because what is to be gained is simultaneously one’s
self and the fulfilment of the purposes of Christ. Paul’s discourse thus scram-
bles what we would normally speak of as “self-interest.” If you are to think not
(or not only) of “your own interests” (τὰ ἑαυτῶν, 2:4), that is not because the
self is to be discounted, but because its fulfilment is “found in Christ” (3:9),
and that might be by suffering loss or by having abundance (4:12-13), by life or
by death (1:21-22). Because the value of all these conditions is reconfigured in
relation to Christ, Paul does not elevate material or physical suffering to the
status of a necessary condition of virtue, but neither does he regard them as
incompatible with the deeper fulfilment of the self. On either count there is
no self-negation, if by “self” we mean the self that is seized and protected by
Christ and will ultimately be fulfilled.
It is in this connection – the triangulation of all human relations by their
relationship to Christ – that we need to consider the place of the Christ-hymn
(2:6-11). Käsemann’s critique of the ethical interpretation of the hymn, as if it
functioned primarily to offer a model of self-humbling regard for others, was
one-sided in its denial of any connection to the preceding ethical imperatives,
but was surely right in insisting that the hymn’s functions are much wider

23 For a reading of 4:10-20 that brings out the importance of the triangular relationship, see
D. Briones, “Paul’s Intentional ‘Thankless Thanks’ in Philippians 4.10-20,” JSNT 34 (2011):
124 Barclay

and deeper than that.24 To make Christ here simply the concrete example of
a generalizable norm, even as the definitive examplar of self-humbling, would
seriously underplay the way this hymn (including its final verses, 2:9-11) sets
the framework for everything that is said in Philippians about the purpose and
goal of Christian existence. We may affirm that at one level, the hymn offers a
moral example, presenting Christ as a person who looked to others’ interests
above and before his own, and who underwent an extreme self-humbling, all
the way to the cross. In this sense, we could fill the gap in 2:5 (ὃ καὶ ἐν Χριστῷ
Ἰησοῦ) by reading “as was the mind of Christ Jesus”: there is, after all, some
reference to what he “considered” in 2:6. Even on this reading, of course, we
may hardly speak of “self-negation” in any ultimate sense, since it was because
of Christ’s action (διό) that God exalted him and gave him the name above
every name (2:9-11). On the other hand, this narrative, in both its parts, clearly
does far more than offer a moral tale: here are the outlines of the drama of
salvation on which the Christian community is founded, and on which it rests
its hopes of “salvation” (2:12). Christian identity, and the meaning of every
Christian act, is framed by this narrative, whose articulation of Christ as “Lord”
(2:11) calls for an “obedience” that re-orients every form of social interaction at
the human level. The Christian “self” is not only given here an encouraging
example: it is reconstituted in its identity, meaning and goals. Since its whole
system of “symbolic capital” is now stripped down and rebuilt by allegiance
to Christ (3:2-11), the interests of the “self” are hereby redefined: every rightly
discerned Christian act, including every sacrificial act for others, derives its
meaning from its placement within a narrative in which the crucified Lord
claims the obedience of the cosmos. Everything can be wagered on the truth
of this narrative, which guarantees the ultimate victory of Christ and of those
he will come to save (2:11; 3:20-21). What a believer wants for others and for
herself is a deeper embedding in this Christological reality, a mindset that

24 E. Käsemann, “Kritische Analyse von Phil. 2, 5-11,” ZTK 47 (1950): 313-60. For analysis of
the context and purpose of this essay, see R. Morgan, “Incarnation, Myth, and Theology:
Ernst Käsemann’s Interpretation of Philippians 2:5-11,” in Where Christology Began: Es-
says on Philippians 2 (ed. R.P. Martin and B.J. Dodds; Louisville: Westminster John Knox
Press, 1998), 43-73. The recent revival of “ethical” interpretations of the hymn corrects the
onesidedness of Käsemann’s reading, but a strong sense that the narrative reflects the re-
ality that believers inhabit is needed to prevent an opposite one-sidedness in presenting
the Christ-story as primarily a moral examplar. For discussion, see S. Fowl, The Story of
Christ in the Ethics of Paul (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1990), and, for a tendency
in this latter direction, see idem, “Christology and Ethics in Philippians 2:5-11,” in Where
Christology Began, 140-53.
Seneca and Paul on “Altruism” 125

they share ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ (the other, and additional meaning of 2:5). In that
sense, what Paul calls for is not at all about suppressing your own interests and
letting others have their way: it is about discovering together how your deepest
common interests lie in obedience to Christ.

3 Conclusion

Despite appearances, neither Seneca nor Paul fit a modern template of “al-
truism,” although for different reasons and in their own distinctive ways.25
If “altruism” in the modern sense creates an antithesis between “interested”
and “disinterested” behaviour, if it plots “selflessness” as the polar opposite
to “egoism,” and figures the interests of self and the interests of others as a
competitive relationship, it does not map well onto the shape and purpose
of either Seneca’s or Paul’s construal of other-regard. Seneca wants the purest
of motives, the cleanest possible intention, in pursuing benevolence, with no
ulterior design for profit or utilitas. But the point of benevolence is to create
social ties of friendship and co-operation, and the good-will that one displays
to another is consummated with the return of good-will (gratitude and at least
the willingness to return a gift) from the beneficiary. In other words, the larger
frame of self-forgetful benevolence is the mutual benefit of a well-functioning,
reciprocal friendship. Paul also puts other-regard into a larger frame. Again, so-
ciality, mutuality, and the commitment of each member of the community to
look out for all the others means that “putting others first” establishes a com-
munal space where no-one can be allowed to wither. A self-offering of each to
the other does not entail that anyone becomes “selfless.” At the same time, Paul
places all these relationships into their ultimate relation to Christ, who guar-
antees that every believer has a share in “God’s riches in glory in Christ Jesus”
(4:19). In serving another, in order to strengthen their investment in that fund,
I also myself draw deeper on its wealth, so that ultimately there is no possibil-
ity of a “trade-off” between other believers’ interests and my own. Whatever
I “lose” in this process turns out to be “earthly” (3:19), and no significant loss
according to the ledger that records my new symbolic capital (3:2-11). If the
Lord I serve is also my “Saviour” (3:20), I have nothing to lose by serving him.

25 My argument largely agrees with that of Engberg-Pedersen, “Radical Altruism” in this

general conclusion, even if he uses the label “radical altruism” for what I might term
a weaker, and pre-modern version of altruism. We both deny that Paul and the Stoics
advocate the kind of “abject self-sacrifice” which has become associated with the term
“altruism” in modern philosophical ethics.
126 Barclay

Because of this narrative dimension, and eschatological horizon, Paul ap-

pears much more blatant than Seneca in speaking about his own “gain” and
the “prize” he pursues as the goal of his life. He does not share Seneca’s philo-
sophical sensitivity to such language of “profit” because he is not engaged in
the attempt to defeat a rival philosophical school (Epicureanism) and because,
from his perspective, whatever “gain” he will have is only what he is given
through his “seizure” and his “upward call” (3:12-14). By the same token, he is
not concerned by the purity of motive or intention (the animus of the agent)
with regard to virtue. Single-hearted devotion to Christ is essential (2:21), but
the believer who worships Christ, to whom every knee will bow, will not have
to suppress all reflection of his own benefit, since the interests of Christ and
the interests of the reconstituted self are hardly divorced. Paradoxically, this
means that Paul seems much more prepared to suffer harm and loss for the
sake of Christ than Seneca considered reasonable – though Seneca’s exception
to his rule, self-sacrifice for a great cause or a great person (Ben. 2.15.1), suggests
where he might have understood Paul’s perspective. Since suffering for others
is always also (and ultimately) suffering for Christ, this element of self-sacrifice
(which Paul expects to be balanced out within the community) is taken up
into the dialectic of sharing the suffering of Christ and his resurrection power
(3:10-11); and its ultimate horizon is not self-negation but the resurrection, and
the removal of all forms of humiliation (3:11, 20-21). The “great cause” in this
case is the cause of Christ, and that means ultimately the glorification of all
who belong to Christ (3:21).
If one abstracts Seneca’s or Paul’s ethic of commitment to others from its
social environment of mutual other-concern, and if one removes Paul’s ethic
from its theological and eschatological frame, it is easy to see how they could
end up in a number of modern contortions. Altruistic “self-sacrifice” can come
to seem, in a modern context, an absurdly remote ideal, which needs to be
tempered or compromised by one means or another. Alternatively, it can be
promoted, ironically, as the purest form of individual self-realization. In any
case, the modern tendency is to play off “altruism” against “egoism,” and “self-
less disinterest” against “selfish” relations of exchange. Both Seneca and Paul
prove more subtle than such modern antitheses, but their differing subtleties
also open out to competing visions of the cosmos, which ultimately configure
life in significantly different ways.26

26 For an argument that Christian and Stoic forms of life are ultimately incompatible, be-
cause incommensurable, see C.K. Rowe, One True Life: The Argument of Rival Traditions
(New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016).
Paul and Seneca on the Self-Gift
David E. Briones

1 Introduction

The incalculable act of giving oneself to another as a gift (referred to here as

the self-gift) appears in the works of Paul and Seneca.1 The particular strat-
egy of this essay will be to compare their thoughts on the self-gift as it relates
to two specific gift dynamics: the notion of worth and the spirit of generos-
ity (i.e., the willing animus).2 After listening to Paul and Seneca on their own
terms, they will be compared dialogically to tease out the similarities and dis-
similarities in their thinking, with the primary focus on their wider social and
theological frameworks.3 In the end, their distinct views on the economy of
gift will emerge, with critical points of convergence and divergence plainly in

2 Seneca on the Self-Gift

In De Beneficiis 1.8.1-9.1,4 Seneca recounts a story – indeed an exemplum of

gift exchange – that conveys the ideal dynamics of gift through an interaction
between Socrates and his pupil, Aeschines:5

1 The focus of this essay will not be concerned with the complex (ancient and modern) de-
bate about the self, nor will I interact with anthropological-philosophical paradigms. For
that discussion, see Michel Foucault’s works (The Use of Pleasure, The Care of the Self, and
The Hermeneutics of the Subject), the insightful essays in Bartsch and Wray, eds., Seneca and
the Self (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), Gretchen Reydams-Schils, The Ro-
man Stoics: Self, Responsibility, and Affection (Chicago/London: The University of Chicago
Press, 2005), and Clare K. Rothschild and Trevor W. Thompson, Christian Body, Christian Self:
Concepts of Early Christian Personhood (WUNT 1/284; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2011). This
essay is more about the gift of oneself than the self itself.
2 Although many other gift dynamics could be examined (e.g., reciprocity, obligation, self-
interest), even the relational patterns in Paul and Seneca (e.g., superior/inferior, individ-
ual/corporate), I will limit this essay to the two aforementioned.
3 The three branches of Stoic thought are: physics (theology), logic, and ethics.
4 For the most recent work on De Beneficiis, see Miriam T. Griffin, Seneca on Society: A Guide to
De Beneficiis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).
5 Born between 430-420 B.C.E., Aeschines is said to have been poor prior to becoming a
pupil of Socrates. He was also present at his trial and death. In a speech by Lysias, he

© Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2017 | DOI 10.1163/9789004341364 008

128 Briones

8. Socrati cum multa pro suis quisque facultatibus offerrent, Aeschines,

pauper auditor: “Nihil,” inquit, “dignum te, quod dare tibi possim, invenio
et hoc uno modo pauperem esse me sentio. Itaque dono tibi, quod unum
habeo, me ipsum. Hoc munus rogo, qualecumque est, boni consulas cog-
itesque alios, cum multum tibi darent, plus sibi reliquisse.” Cui Socrates:
“Quidni tu,” inquit, “magnum munus mihi dederis, nisi forte te parvo aes-
timas? Habebo itaque curae, ut te meliorem tibi reddam, quam accepi.”
Vicit Aeschines hoc munere Alcibiadis parem divitiis animum et omnem
iuvenum opulentorum munificentiam.

9. Vides, quomodo animus inveniat liberalitatis materiam etiam inter an-

gustias. Videtur mihi dixisse: “Nihil egisti, fortuna, quod me pauperem
esse voluisti; expediam dignum nihilo minus huic viro munus, et quia de
tuo non possum, de meo dabo.” Neque est, quod existimes illum vilem
sibi fuisse: pretium se sui fecit. Ingeniosus adulescens invenit, quemad-
modum Socraten sibi daret. Non quanta quaeque sint, sed a quali pro-
fecta, prospiciendum.

8. Once when many gifts were being presented to Socrates by his pupils,
each one bringing according to his means, Aeschines, who was poor, said
to him: “Nothing that I am able to give to you do I find worthy of you,
and only in this way do I discover that I am a poor man. And so I give to
you the only thing that I possess – myself. This gift, such as it is, I beg you
to take in good part, and bear in mind that the others, though they gave
to you much, have left more for themselves.” “And how,” said Socrates,
“could it have been anything but a great gift – unless maybe you set small
value upon yourself? And so I shall make it my care to return you to your-
self a better man than when I received you.” By this present Aeschines
surpassed Alcibiades, whose heart matched his riches, and the wealthy
youths with all their splendid gifts.

9. You see how even in pinching poverty the heart finds the means for
generosity. These, it seems to me, were the words of Aeschines: “You,
O Fortune, have accomplished nothing by wishing to make me poor;
I shall none the less find for this great man a gift that is worthy of him,
and, since I cannot give to him from your store, I shall give from my

was even called a “notorious debtor” (“Aeschines,” in Brill’s New Pauly [Brill Online, 2013;
http://brillonline.nl/entries/brill-s-new-pauly/aeschines-e110600; accessed June 5, 2013).
Paul and Seneca on the Self-Gift 129

own.” Nor is there any reason for you to suppose that he counted himself
cheap: the value he set upon himself was himself. And so clever a young
man was he that he discovered a way of giving to himself – Socrates! It is
not the size of our respective benefits, but the character of the one from
whom they come that should be our concern.6

Although many have considered sections of Seneca’s writings (much like the
one above) to be ancillary and unnecessarily digressive,7 Aeschines’s self-gift
to Socrates actually exemplifies the perfect beneficium in this treatise.8 Two
gift dynamics are especially worth highlighting, dynamics which operate as a
thoroughly Stoic appraisal (and reconfiguration) of common, Roman cultural
standards: the worth of the recipient and the willing animus.9

2.1 The Worth of the Recipient

The notion of worth appears very frequently in De Beneficiis. In particular,
givers are exhorted repeatedly to discern (iudicare) the worth (dignitas) of
a recipient before choosing (eligere) to grant a favor to them. This principle
comes as a riposte against the malpractice of wealthy benefactors in society

6 I have used the LCL edition and translation of De Beneficiis (Moral Essays III; trans. J.W.
Basore; Loeb Classical Library; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1935). I quote from
this edition with a few changes throughout the essay.
7 In speaking of De Beneficiis, Miriam Griffin joyfully remarks, “The days are happily gone
when Seneca was taken to be incapable of organizing a literary work” (“Seneca’s Pedagogic
Strategy: Letters and De Beneficiis,” in Greek and Roman Philosophy 100 BC – 200 AD [ed.
Richard Sorabji and Robert W. Sharples; London: Institute of Classical Studies, 2007], 89-113
at 95; cf. also idem, Seneca on Society, 111-124). Admittedly, though, there are several parts of
De Beneficiis that leave one forgetting where he began.
8 Pietro Li Causi explores Ben. 1.8.1-9.1 in view of the virtuous elements of giving in the preced-
ing sections of the book. He argues that Seneca’s ideal beneficium is realized in Aeschines,
both as giver and gift, noting that “Seneca [in 1.8.1 and 1.9.1] usa ben due volte, nel corso del
racconto, il verbo invenio . . . che, come è noto, fa parte del repertorio retorico dell’ideazione
dell’argomento” (“La teoria inflazione. Il dono di Eschine e la riflessione senecana sui bene-
ficia,” Annali Online di Ferrara - Lettere 1 [2008]: 95-110 at 103 n23). Griffin concurs, noting
that “Aeschines illustrates the true nature of a benefit,” which Seneca begins to define in Ben.
1.5.1 (Seneca on Society, 182).
9 Though, as Brad Inwood reminds us, “In the De Beneficiis Seneca speaks, as he often does,
with a Stoic voice about a topic of broad interest” (“Politics and Paradox in Seneca’s De
Beneficiis,” in Reading Seneca: Stoic Philosophy at Rome [Oxford: Oxford University Press,
2005], 65-94 at 68-69; cf. also Miriam Griffin, “De Beneficiis and Roman Society,” The Journal
of Roman Studies 93 [2003]: 92-113 at 107 and 113).
130 Briones

(1.1.9-10). The well-to-do (like his addressee Aebutius Liberalis) are growing
weary of giving to those who never returned gratitude.10 Gift exchange was
increasingly becoming a one-way transaction. Benefits were failing to produce
the return of gratitude (cf. 2.11.4-5), so abstaining altogether seemed far more
beneficial.11 Seneca, however, recognizes that if the wealthy refuse to bestow
gifts, the entire social system of exchange – a cohesive system which “consti-
tutes the chief bond of human society” (1.4.2)12 – would collapse. Foreseeing
this social catastrophe, Seneca attempts to rectify the reproachful assessment
of opulent givers, albeit counter-intuitively.
One would think that if a shortage of gratitude existed, the blame would
obviously fall on the recipients of gifts. After all, that is their part of the deal.
Yet Seneca, from beginning to end in De Beneficiis, places the brunt of the
blame on givers.13 Among the several causes of ingratitude in society, the
chief and foremost is that givers “do not pick out [non eligimus] those who
are worthy [dignos] of receiving (their) gifts” (1.1.2; cf. 3.11.1). Neither discern-
ment (iudicium) nor reason (ratio) accompany their giving (cf. 1.2.1; 4.10.2), as
they consistently fail to consider “to whom to give (a benefit), and how and
why” (4.10.2-3). What results is the kind of giving that Seneca forthrightly calls
“thoughtless benefaction” and “the most shameful sort of loss” (4.10.3). “If we
have received no return,” he explains, it is certainly “the fault of another.” How-
ever, “if we did not select [non elegimus] the one to whom we were giving, the
fault is our own” (4.10.3; cf. 1.14.1). His line of reasoning is that, “if [benefits]
are ill placed, they are ill acknowledged” (1.1.1). The cause of ingratitude lies in
the indiscriminate manner in which a gift is given, not the grateful response
(or lack thereof) from beneficiaries. Resentful benefactors therefore have no
one to blame but themselves. Seneca’s sharp rebuke here is a call for change
in gift-giving relationships, and exercising discernment and selecting worthy
recipients begins the trek toward reform.14

10 Cf. Anna L. Motto and John R. Clark, “Seneca on the Vir Ingratus,” Acta Classica 37 (1994):
11 Particularly insightful is Inwood’s analysis of Ep. 81 (the “appendix” of De Beneficiis, as he
calls it), which expounds on the problem of ingratitude rendering benefactors ungener-
ous (“Paradox,” 76-81).
12 Cf. also Ben. 1.15.2; 7.16.2. An earlier formulation of this famous dictum appears in Aristo-
tle, Eth. nic. 8.1-4.
13 Griffin, “Roman Society,” 103; Inwood, “Paradox,” 91.
14 Seneca’s aim in De Beneficiis is “to reform the individual level in order to improve the so-
cial level” (Miriam Griffin, “Seneca as a Sociologist: De Beneficiis,” in Seneca uomo politico
e l’età di Claudio e di Nerone [ed. Arturo De Vivo and Elio Lo Cascio; Bari, Italy: Edipuglia,
2003], 89-122 at 103).
Paul and Seneca on the Self-Gift 131

Returning now to Ben. 1.8.1-9.1, Aeschines appears as an ideal personi-

fication of this first gift dynamic. After witnessing well-to-do peers lavish
Socrates with many gifts, this pauper auditor assesses his meager storehouse
of possessions and sadly exclaims, “Nothing that I am able to give to you do
I find worthy of you [dignum te]” (Ben. 1.8.1). His hesitation is not surprising.
Socrates, “a long-suffering old man” with “wonderful and rare distinction” (Ep.
104.27-28), is lauded as a Stoic sage by Seneca,15 an attainable paragon of an
unattainable ideal (cf. Ben. 5.6.1-7; 7.8.2). Socrates is a concrete example of a
worthy recipient.
Aeschines quickly discerns the dignitas of his accomplished teacher and re-
fuses to degrade him with an unworthy gift. Instead, he offers him the most
valuable benefit his impoverished situation permits – his very self (me ip-
sum). Seneca reconstructs the thought pattern behind this virtuous act, com-
mending Aeschines for rising above his disadvantaged predicament – allotted
to him by fortuna – and furnishing “for this great man a gift that is worthy
[dignum] of him” (1.9.1). Discernment (iudicium) in selecting (in elegendo) a
worthy (dignus) recipient, the very marks of virtuous gift giving, are here ap-
plied to Aeschines’s self-gift to his magister. He rightly discerns Socrates’s char-
acter and tailors his gift accordingly. The very impetus behind this self-giving
act constitutes the second gift dynamic.

2.2 The Willing Animus

The importance of the animus (“mind,” “soul,” “character”) in De Beneficiis can-
not be overstated. It is, for Seneca, the sine qua non of gift exchange.16 Nev-
ertheless, to understand it correctly, his discussion of the animus must be sit-
uated within his larger project to reform the social system of gift exchange
through philosophical means. As noted earlier, when an absence of gratitude
exists in society, Seneca finds fault primarily with givers, not recipients. And
yet, recipients are still to blame for their ingratitude.17 Seneca specifically notes

15 Although Seneca’s prime model of the sage is Cato the Younger, hailing him as “the living
image of all the virtues” (Tranq. 16.1; cf. Miriam Griffin, Seneca: A Philosopher in Politics
[Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976], 182-94).
16 Cf. Ben. 1.1.3, 8, 12; 1.4.3-6; 1.5.1-2; 1.6.1-2; 2.2.1; 2.31.1-3; 4.40.1-4. Voluntas (“will” or “desire”)
is equally as important to Seneca (cf. Ben. 1.1.3; 5.15.1). On the importance of voluntas
in Epistulae Morales and De Beneficiis, see Max Pohlenz, “Philosophie und Erlebnis in
Senecas Dialogen,” in Kleine Schriften (2 vols.; Leipzig: Hildesheim, 1965), 1:440-46; J.M.
Rist, Stoic Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), 224-28, esp. 227;
Brad Inwood, “The Will in Seneca,” in Reading Seneca (Oxford: Oxford University Press),
17 Cf. Ben. 2.26-28; 2.35.3; 3.1-5; 4.40.3-5; 6.41-43.
132 Briones

three distinct manifestations of the vir ingratus: (1) one who denies that he re-
ceived a benefit, when, in fact, he has received one; (2) one who pretends that
he has not received one; and (3) one who fails to return a benefit (3.1.3).18 Each
of these ungrateful responses can be boiled down to a common fear: recipi-
ents were afraid to receive benefits when they could not reciprocate a material
counter-gift (cf. 2.35.1-3).19 The cause of their trepidation is twofold. First, the
essence of gift in Roman society was the res, the material content of one’s gen-
erosity toward another. Second, beneficiaries were expected to reciprocate in
kind (material-for-material) or to “return some gift similar [simile] to the one
(they) received” (2.35.2),20 depending on one’s social standing and resources.21
From the perspective of recipients, then, it was better to be deemed ungrateful
than to be shamefully outdone by benefactors.22
Seneca nevertheless attempts to remedy the ubiquitous vice of ingratitude
by elevating animus (spirit) above the res (materiality) in gift-giving. By do-
ing so, he redefines the essence of gift. If the animus does not drive the three
movements of gift (giving, receiving, and returning), then benefits merely dis-
play a veneer of virtue but are, in reality, ignoble loans.23 This is because a
beneficium “consists, not in what is done or given [fit aut datur], but in the
intention [animo] of the giver or doer” (1.6.1); it “cannot possibly be touched
by the hand; its province is the mind [res animo geritur]” (1.5.2). A beneficium
“is undoubtedly good [bonum], while what is done or given [fit aut datur] is
neither a good nor an evil” (1.6.2). A material gift (res) is simply a matter of
indifference. Only an immaterial return (animus) in the form of gratitude is

18 Other causes of ingratitude are mentioned in Ben. 2.18.1; 2.24-28; 7.26.1-7.27.3.

19 Griffin, “Sociologist,” 103.
20 For the main characteristics of Roman patronage (patrocinium), as well as other patterns
of exchange in the ancient world, see David E. Briones, “Mutual Brokers of Grace: A Study
in 2 Corinthians 1:3-11,” NTS 56 (2010): 536-56 at 539-43; idem, Paul’s Financial Policy (LNTS
494; London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2013), 26-41.
21 Griffin argues that a crucial component to the aristocratic code in Roman society was
that inferiors were capable of reciprocating a material gift to their superiors (“Roman
Society,” 112). Even Seneca affirms this possibility (cf. Ben. 5.4.2-3; 6.30.3). Irrespective of
one’s social standing, Seneca does not deny that a material gift must be returned at some
point (after all, he is reforming rather than terminating the practice of gift exchange at
the social level; cf. Ben. 2.35.1-5). Yet, as will become apparent below, he raises the essence
of gift to the level of virtue, where the animus constitutes its principal part. This discloses,
as Inwood explains, the “two levels of activity in any social exchange, the material and the
intentional (“Paradox,” 89).
22 Seneca examines being outdone by givers in Ben. 5.2-4.
23 Cf. Ben. 2.34.1.
Paul and Seneca on the Self-Gift 133

honorable and virtuous (cf. 2.24-35; 6.21.1). This is why Seneca can say, “No one,
therefore, can be outdone in benefits if he knows how to owe a debt, if he
desires [vult] to make return – if he matches his benefactor in spirit [animo],
even though he cannot match him in deeds [rebus]” (5.4.1). Recipients should
seek to reciprocate a return of a willing animus rather than “a return-as-res.”24
The size of the gift matters little to Seneca. What matters is the recipient’s
willingness and good intention – in short, a remarkable animus.25
This redefinition of the essence of gift is epitomized by Aeschines’s counter-
gift to Socrates.26 After giving (or entrusting) himself to his magister, he imme-
diately elevates his self-gift above those of his affluent peers. Although they be-
stowed material benefits, they left “more for their ‘selves’” (plus sibi reliquisse;
1.8.1), whereas Aeschines has left nothing for his “self,” having already given
it away. To this, Socrates responds inquisitively, “How could it (Aeschines’s
self-gift) have been anything but a great gift [magnum munus] – unless per-
haps you set small value on yourself [nisi forte te parvo aestimas]?” (1.8.2). Of
course, Seneca clarifies, there is no reason to think that he “counted himself
cheap” (vilem sibi fuisse). By drawing from his own “storehouse”27 and giving
his very self, “the value he set on himself was himself” (pretium se sui fecit;
Seneca’s somewhat puzzling explanation concerning the value of
Aeschines’s self-gift becomes intelligible once Stoic value theory is under-
stood.29 The act of ascribing value to an object or action, as good, bad, or indif-

24 John M.G. Barclay, Paul and Gift (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015), 49-50.
25 While admittedly hyperbolic (cf. Ben. 7.22-25), Seneca’s emphasis on the animus culmi-
nates into a well-known paradox, aimed at givers and recipients alike: the benefactor
should immediately forget that a gift was given, while the beneficiary should never for-
get that a gift was received (Ben. 2.10.4). For more on Seneca’s finely-balanced pedagogic
strategy in De Beneficiis, see Inwood, “Paradox”; Griffin, “Seneca’s Pedagogic Strategy”;
idem, “Sociologist,” 102-13.
26 Li Causi (“Il dono di Eschine,” 103) rightly insists that Aeschines’s self-gift is both a return
for Socrates’s gift of teaching (diricambiare i suoi doni) as well as a “form of relationship”
(una forma direlazione), rendering “[t]his gift a perfect gift because it is configured as
chiefly immaterial” (Il dono che dà è un dono perfetto perché si configura come massima-
mente immateriale).
27 In Ben. 5.13.1, Seneca delineates between “goods of the mind [animi], goods of the body
[corporis], and goods of fortune [fortunae].” Obviously, Aeschines, being a poor man,
lacked the latter two, but he nevertheless had no shortage of the first set of goods.
28 On the difficulty in translating this phrase, as well as its several variations, see Maria S.
Bellincioni, “Seneca, Ben. 1,9,1: (Aeschines) pretium se sui fecit,” Paideia 28 (1983): 175-83.
29 That Seneca employs a distinctively Stoic value theory in De Beneficiis is confirmed by
5.12.5: apud nos (Inwood, “Paradox,” 81).
134 Briones

ferent, is rooted in physics30 and forms the basis of the doctrine of oikeiōsis.31
The central tenet of this doctrine is that self-preservation is the rudimentary
desire of all human beings. What humans think will enhance their rational
being is deemed “good” (virtue = the only genuinely good thing), while things
that will damage it are called “bad” (vice = the only genuinely bad thing).
Everything else is “indifferent” (things that preserve biological life).32
From this, it becomes readily apparent why Aeschines wins the praise
of Socrates and Seneca. The most self-preserving act in his dire, financial
predicament is to entrust his “self” to the care of a venerable teacher, an act
which will inevitably result in a refined inner disposition of the soul – the
very quintessence of virtue. This projected outcome can be discerned from
Socrates’s response: “I shall make it my care [curae] to return you to yourself
a better man than when I received you” (1.8.2).33 Seneca is so astounded by
the high value Aeschines places on his self-gift, as well as the recognition of it
through Socrates’s commitment to his pupil’s “self,” that he concludes: “By this
present, Aeschines surpassed Alcibiades, whose heart [animum] matched his
riches [divitiis], and the wealthy youths with all their splendid gifts [munificen-
tiam]” (1.8.1).
In Seneca’s estimation, the animus trumps – but does not eliminate – the
res in gift exchange.34 This is how he can assert that a person may give “small
gifts out of a great heart” (parva magnifice) and “by his spirit [animo] match
the wealth of kings” (1.7.1). “It is the animus,” moreover, “that exalts small gifts,

30 See Brad Inwood and Pierluigi Donini, “Stoic Ethics,” in The Cambridge History of Hellenis-
tic Philosophy (ed. Keimpe Algra, Jonathan Barnes, Jaap Mansfeld, Malcolm Schofield;
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 675-738.
31 For more on oikeiōsis, see Troels Engberg-Pedersen, The Stoic Theory of Oikeiosis: Moral
Development and Social Interaction in Early Stoic Philosophy (Denmark: Aarhus Univer-
sity Press, 1990); Reydams-Schils, The Roman Stoics, 34-45, 53-82; John Sellars, Stoicism
(Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006), 107-14.
32 There are two categories of things that are “indifferent”: (1) “preferred indifferents”
(health and wealth); and (2) “non-preferred indifferents” (sickness and poverty; Sellars,
Stoicism, 112).
33 Likening philosophy to an art concerned with the cure or therapy of the soul is a recur-
rent theme in the work of Epicurean and Stoic thinkers (cf. Galen, PHP 5.2.23; Cicero,
Tusc. 3.6; Epictetus, Diatr. 1.15.2). Among Stoics specifically, Martha Nussbaum explains,
“Philosophy’s medical function is understood as, above all, that of toning up the soul – de-
veloping its muscles, assisting it to use its own capabilities more effectively” (The Therapy
of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics [Princeton: Princeton University Press,
1994], 317).
34 A material return is still necessary (Ben. 2.35.1-5; 4.21.3).
Paul and Seneca on the Self-Gift 135

. . . and discredits those that are great and considered of value [pretio]” (1.6.2).
He also likens the animus to a field on which competitive games are played, as
competitors outdo one another on an immaterial level (1.4.3; 3.38.1-3; 5.2-5).35
So when we circle back to Aeschines’s self-gift, it makes sense for Seneca to say,
“You see how even in pinching poverty the animus finds the means for gen-
erosity” (1.9.1). By overcoming his disadvantaged lot in life, manifesting a su-
perior animus, and providing an incalculable gift, he turns his rags into riches
and transcends the wealth of royalty. Personified in Aeschines is a counter-
cultural principle that allows the poor to reciprocate counter-gifts in the midst
of poverty. As Seneca recounts, “[S]o clever a young man was he that he discov-
ered how he might secure Socrates for himself as a gift.”36
We have examined two gift dynamics thus far – that of discerning and se-
lecting worthy recipients and displaying a willing animus – which are em-
bodied by Aeschines, both as giver and gift, and come to a head in Seneca’s
central argument of Ben. 1.8.1-9.1: “It is not the size of our respective bene-
fits, but the character of the one from whom they come that should be our
concern” (1.9.1). Having expounded on these essential elements generally and
Aeschines’s self-gift specifically, we now turn to hear Paul’s perspective on the

3 Paul on the Self-Gift

Two passages in particular portray the act of giving oneself as a gift in the
Pauline corpus and correspond to the two gift dynamics found in Seneca’s De
Beneficiis: 1 Thess 2:8 and 2 Cor 8:5. Although we will examine each in turn,
these texts, when viewed together, display a reciprocal exchange of selves. In

35 Fortuna has certainly rendered Aeschines and Alcibiades unequal in physical possessions
(Ben. 5.5.3), yet because “the true estimate of virtue is concerned wholly with the heart
[animum],” and “whatever else is lacking is the fault of Fortune [fortuna]” (Ben. 4.21.3),
Aeschines bravely competed against fortuna and overcame his competitor, Alcibiades.
This sort of mutually-enhancing competition is what Seneca considers a “most honorable
rivalry” (honestissimam contentionem), one that takes place at the immaterial level of
gift and the outcome of which is Socrates himself. Nevertheless, a person who has been
outdone in animus has “no need to blush on the ground that he has been outdone” (Ben.
36 Translation from William H. Alexander, “Lucius Annaeus Seneca De Beneficiis Libri VII:
The Text Emended and Explained,” in University of California Publications in Classical
Philology 14 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1950), 1-46 at 6.
136 Briones

1 Thess 2:8, Paul gives his self to the Thessalonians, whereas the Thessalonians
(or Macedonians), in 2 Cor 8:5, reciprocate by giving themselves to Paul.37 The
relational picture that emerges is a mutual exchange of selves, much like the
exchange between Socrates and Aeschines in Ben. 1.8.1-9.1.

3.1 1 Thessalonians 2:8 – The Worth of the Recipient?

This passage, considered die merkwürdige Klimax of 1 Thess 2:1-12,38 is not
only replete with deep and committed affections, capturing Paul’s self-gift
to his cherished Thessalonians, but it also seems to contain traces of what,
in Senecan terms, makes them worthy to receive such an unquantifiable

οὕτως ὁμειρόμενοι ὑμῶν εὐδοκοῦμεν μεταδοῦναι ὑμῖν οὐ μόνον τὸ εὐαγγέλιον

τοῦ θεοῦ ἀλλὰ καὶ τὰς ἑαυτῶν ψυχάς. (2:8a)

So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you
not only the gospel of God but also our own selves.

The alliterative and highly emotive phrase οὕτως ὁμειρόμενοι ὑμῶν picks up the
preceding maternal image in 2:739 of a “nursing mother who cherishes her
own children” (τροφὸς θάλπῃ τὰ ἑαυτῆς τέκνα).40 Just as a nursing mother, com-
pelled by love, is willing to give herself (quite literally) to her children; so too

37 “Those addressed [in 1 Thess 2:8],” F.F. Bruce explains, “seem to have followed and recip-
rocated the apostolic example [of giving himself to them], to judge from 2 Cor 8:5, where
it is said that the Macedonian churches ‘first gave themselves (ἑαυτούς) to the Lord and
to us (Paul and his companions) by the will of God’” (1 & 2 Thessalonians [WBC 45; Waco,
TX: Word Books Publisher, 1982], 32).
38 Traugot Holtz, Geschichte und Theologie des Urchristentums (WUNT 57; Tübingen: Mohr
Siebeck, 1991), 305. On whether 2:1-12 should be considered apologetic or paraenetic, see
Karl P. Donfried and Johannes Beutler, eds., The Thessalonians Debate: Methodological
Discord or Methodological Synthesis? (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000).
39 As indicated by the relation between ὡς (2:7c) and οὕτως (2:8a).
40 For the precise meaning of and discussion surrounding the term τροφός, see Beverly
Gaventa, Our Mother Saint Paul (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), 21-28.
I chose to translate τροφός as “nursing-mother,” for although the term is restricted to a
wet nurse, Paul extends the metaphor to include the picture of a mother through his
use of the reflexive pronoun (τὰ ἑαυτῆς τέκνα); see Jeffrey A.D. Weima, “Infants, Nursing
Mother, and Father: Paul’s Portrayal of a Pastor,” CTJ 37 (2002): 209-29 at 221. For the use
of this metaphor among the Cynics, see Abraham Malherbe, “‘Gentle as a Nurse’: The
Stoic Background to 1 Thess II,” NovT 12 (1970): 203-17.
Paul and Seneca on the Self-Gift 137

Paul,41 equally driven by love, is well-pleased (εὐδοκέω) to share (μεταδίδωμι)

not only the gospel but also “his very self” (ἡ ἑαυτοῦ ψυχή).42 The aorist infini-
tive, μεταδοῦναι, governs both parts of the clause, joined by the οὐ μόνον . . . ἀλλὰ
καὶ construction, and has two direct objects: τὸ εὐαγγέλιον τοῦ θεοῦ43 and τὰς
ἑαυτῶν ψυχάς. The gift of God’s gospel (the proclamation) and his very self (the
proclaimer) merge into a single, immaterial gift granted to the Thessalonians.
This leads John Gillman to insist that “Paul not only gave what he had, but
what he was.”44 The proclamation of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ
in his workshop, private homes, and the synagogue45 operates as a replication
of the Christ event through the toil and hardship of his vocational trade “on
their behalf” (δι᾽ ὑμᾶς, 1:5; cf. 2:9; 2 Cor 12:15).46 He imitates (or, perhaps bet-

41 Although Paul associates himself with Silvanus and Timothy in 1:1, this essay, for the sake
of convenience, will view “Paul” as the referent of the first person plural. Even if each oc-
currence of “we/us” is not a literary plural, he is primarily in view. For more on the literary
plural in Pauline literature, see Samuel Byrskog, “Co-Senders, Co-Authors and Paul’s Use
of the First Person Plural,” ZNW 87 (1996): 230-250; Ernst von Dobschütz, “Wir und Ich
bei Paulus,” ZST 10 (1993): 251-277; Traugott Holtz, Der erste Brief an die Thessalonicher (3d
ed.; EKKNT 13; Zürich: Benziger/Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1998), 77-78.
42 Ψυχή does not refer solely to his inner life. His entire person is in view (i.e., time, energy,
and health; see E. Schweizer, TDNT 9:608-66 at 648).
43 This genitival construction portrays God as the ultimate source of the gift of grace in
the gospel. For the relational significance of this dynamic in 1 Thess 2, see Briones, Paul’s
Financial Policy, 164-77.
44 John Gillman, “Paul’s Εἴσοδος: The Proclaimed and the Proclaimer,” in The Thessalonian
Correspondence (ed. Raymond Collins; Louvain: Leuven University Press, 1990), 62-70; cf.
also Franz Laub, 1. und 2. Thesslonicherbrief (Würzburg: Echter, 1985), 26-31. In the same
vein, Gaventa asserts, “Apostles cannot give over the gospel without giving over some-
thing of themselves” (First and Second Thessalonians [Interpretation; Louisville, KY: John
Knox Press, 1998], 30).
45 See Ronald F. Hock, The Social Context of Paul’s Ministry: Tentmaking and Apostleship
(Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980); Stanley Stowers, “Social Status, Public Speaking and
Private Teaching: The Circumstances of Paul’s Preaching Activity,” NovT 26 (1984): 59-82.
46 In 1:5, Paul refreshes their memory (οἴδατε) concerning his lifestyle among them, which
receives further attention when speaking of his εἴσοδος in 2:1-12 (Abraham J. Malherbe,
The Letters to the Thessalonians [AB 32B; New York: Doubleday, 2000], 113), specifically
mentioning his manual labor on their behalf in 2:9. By comparing δι᾽ ὑμᾶς in 1:5 to his use
of the phrase in 2 Cor 4:15 and 8:9, it becomes readily apparent that his vocational labors
are an embodiment of the Christ event (cf. Stephen J. Kraftchick, “Death in Us, Life in
You: The Apostolic Medium,” in Pauline Theology [vol. 2: 1 and 2 Corinthians; ed. David M.
Hay; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993], 156-181 at 169-181; Michael J. Gorman, Apostle of
the Crucified Lord: A Theological Introduction to Paul & His Letters [Grand Rapids, MI:
Eerdmans, 2004], 68-69, 155).
138 Briones

ter, embodies) the self-giving love of Christ before the Thessalonians (1 Thess
But while Paul’s intimate bond with the Thessalonians is amplified in 2:7-8a,
we do not encounter the reason why he considers them worthy recipients of
God’s gospel and his self until 2:8b: διότι ἀγαπητοὶ ἡμῖν ἐγενήθητε.47 A cursory
reading of this causal clause may lead one to conclude that something innately
within the Thessalonians causes Paul to love them and, subsequently, to be-
stow the two-fold gift of gospel and self. Yet, if one interprets this verse in light
of ch. 1, a different conclusion emerges: the Thessalonians are not “beloved”
or “worthy” because of an inherent spark of virtue within. Rather, their worth
(i.e., what makes them beloved to Paul) stems from outside of their selves.48
The term ἀγαπητοί in 2:8 points back to 1:4,49 where the beloved
(ἠγαπημένοι) status of the Thessalonians, along with the robust effects ema-
nating from God’s gift of the gospel, is rooted in one fundamental reality: the
election of God.50 In giving thanks (εὐχαριστέω, 1:2) to God, Paul introduces the
“ultimate ground”51 for his thanksgiving in 1:4: εἰδότες,52 ἀδελφοὶ ἠγαπημένοι

47 Of course, the point is made implicitly in 2:8a (ὁμειρόμενοι ὑμῶν), as many recognize (see,
e.g., G.K. Beale, 1-2 Thessalonians [Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2003], 72). Norbert Baumert
challenges this view by translating 2:8 as “So sind wir, wahrend von euch ferngehalten
warden, entschlossen,” with ὁμειρόμενοι understood as “kept apart from you” rather than
“being affectionately desirous of you” (“Oμειρόμενοι in 1 Thess 2,8,” Bib 68 (1987): 552-63).
However, the sudden shift to the present tense in a context focused on his past conduct
(cf. 2:7, 9) makes this reading doubtful (see Heidland, TDNT 5:176).
48 Kathryn Tanner sums it up well: “God does not give gifts to us because of what we have
done to deserve them. They are not payments for services rendered. These gifts are not
owed by the fulfillment of some prior condition” (Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity: A Brief
Systematic Theology [Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2001], 84).
49 This is confirmed by the connection many make between 1:4-5 and 2:1-12, asserting that
the latter serves as an explanation of the former (see, e.g., Gordon Fee, The First and
Second Letters to the Thessalonians [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009], 51; Victor Paul
Furnish, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians [Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2007], 45).
50 For opposing views concerning the nature of election, see Judith M. Gundry Volf, Paul
and Perseverance (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1990) and B.J. Oropeza, Paul and Apostasy
(Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2000).
51 Furnish, 1 Thessalonians, 42; contra Fee (Thessalonians, 27) who considers the service and
love of the Thessalonians as the immediate cause of thanksgiving.
52 This causal participle depends on εὐχαριστέω in 1:2 (John Eadie, A Commentary on the
Greek Text of the Epistles of Paul to the Thessalonians [London: Macmillan, 1877], 39; Leon
Morris, The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians [NICNT; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerd-
mans, 1991], 44 n26), though, as Malherbe notes, it also refers back to μνημονεύοντες in 1:3,
Paul and Seneca on the Self-Gift 139

ὑπὸ [τοῦ] θεοῦ, τὴν ἐκλογὴν ὑμῶν.53 God’s election is the focal point of Paul’s
thanksgiving, being magnified as the definitive source from which everything
else flows. Their acceptance of the gospel, its ensuing effects, and their beloved
position before God and Paul all intricately link back to God’s electing love.54
To support this reading, we simply need to analyze Paul’s use of γίνομαι from
1:5 to 2:8.55 To begin with, the gift of God’s gospel powerfully came (ἐγενήθη) in
word and deed,56 immediately propelling seismic waves of moral transforma-
tion.57 In 1:6, the Thessalonians became (ἐγενήθητε) imitators of the apostles
and the Lord by enduring suffering. In 1:7, they then became (γενέσθαι) an
example (τύπος) to other believers in Macedonian and Achaia. Until, finally,

providing the reason for their τοῦ ἔργου τῆς πίστεως καὶ τοῦ κόπου τῆς ἀγάπης καὶ τῆς
ὑπομονῆς τῆς ἐλπίδος – the call of God (Thessalonians, 109). Peter O’Brien strikes a bal-
ance by noting that the work, toil, and patience of the Thessalonians are “the immediate
grounds for Paul’s constant thanksgiving,” while “the ultimate basis” is “their election”
(Introductory Thanksgivings in the Letters of Paul [NovTSup 49; Leiden: Brill, 1977], 166).
53 Some scholars, by interpreting the ὅτι-clause in 1:5 as epexegetical, render τὴν ἐκλογὴν
ὑμῶν as “the manner (or circumstances) of your election” (see, e.g., Ernest Best, The First
and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians [BNTC; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers,
1986], 70-71; G. Wohlenberg, Der erste und zweite Thessalonicherbrief [2d ed.; KNT; Leipzig:
Deichert, 1909], 24; Ernst von Dobschütz, Die Thessalonicherbriefe [7th ed.; KEK; Göttin-
gen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1909], 24). Others view the ὅτι-clause as causal, simply
translating τὴν ἐκλογὴν ὑμῶν as “your election” and highlighting Paul’s gratitude for “the
fact of their election” (Eadie, Epistles, 40; Charles Wanamaker, The Epistles to the Thes-
salonians: A Commentary on the Greek Text [NIGTC; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990],
78; Beda Rigaux, Saint Paul: Les épîtres aux Thessaloniciens [Ébib; Paris: Gabalda, 1956],
372-73; O’Brien, Thanksgivings, 151-152). While both are grammatically possible, the latter
is preferable. Knowledge of their election is based on their ensuing lifestyle, so clearly
depicted in 1:3, 5-10.
54 “Divine love is a natural counterpart to divine ‘election’ (ἐκλογή)” (Gary S. Shogren, 1 & 2
Thessalonians [ECNT 13; Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012], 62; cf. Morris, Thessalonians,
43). Being loved by God is synonymous with being part of the elect of God, evidenced by
the appearance of some forms of ἀγαπάω in texts concerning election, such as Rom. 9:13,
Eph 1:4-6, Col 3:12, and 2 Thess 2:13 (Beale, Thessalonians, 49).
55 Although γίνομαι also occurs in 1:5; 2:1, 5, 7, describing the work of God’s gospel in the
apostles, I am only concerned here with its work in the Thessalonians.
56 As Rigaux asserts, “L’évangile . . . est une force de vie” (Thessaloniciens, 373).
57 Jan Lambrecht envisions a line of imitation created by the gospel in 1 Thess 1, stating, “One
can reconstruct the line coming from God and the Lord Jesus Christ and going through
the apostles to the Thessalonians, and through them further to others” (“Thanksgivings in
1 Thessalonians 1-3,” in The Thessalonian Correspondence [ed. Raymond Collins; Louvain:
Leuven University Press, 1990], 183-205 at 203).
140 Briones

they became beloved (ἀγαπητοὶ . . . ἐγενήθητε) to Paul in 2:8. As each wave of

transformative power prevails over, in, and through them, they are enabled to
attest to the veracity of 2:13: the gospel is “God’s power because it effects what
it proclaims.”58
Looking back at 2:8, then, Paul’s placement of τὸ εὐαγγέλιον τοῦ θεοῦ (i.e.,
God’s self-giving love in Christ) before ἡ ἑαυτοῦ ψυχή (i.e., Paul’s self-giving love
in Christ) makes an enormous amount of sense. Only after they had accepted
the gift of the gospel, along with its dynamic internal and external effects, were
they manifested to be the elect of God and therefore “beloved by God” (cf. Rom
9:11; 11:5, 7, 28).59 Paul did not first discern their worth. He did not first assess
their moral excellence. And he definitely did not require a philosophically-
refined inner disposition of the soul before bestowing his gift. Instead, they
first came under the love of God in Christ on the basis of divine election,
manifested in time by their profession of faith in response to the gospel. Then,
and only then, did they become “beloved” or, to use Seneca’s term, “worthy” in
Paul’s eyes.60 God is the primary agent behind it all, as he commits himself to
fulfilling all his electing, saving, sanctifying, and glorifying purposes in Christ
(cf. Phil 1:6; Rom 8:29-30).

3.2 2 Corinthians 8:5 – The Willing Animus?

While Paul’s self-gift is delivered to the Thessalonians in 1 Thess 2:8, the Mace-
donians (which includes the Thessalonians) reciprocate the gift of self to Paul
in 2 Cor 8:5, a voluntary act which bears a striking resemblance to Seneca’s
willing animus. To set the wider context, although Paul’s persuasive appeal
in chs. 8-9 contains a strong desire to finalize the Jerusalem collection be-
fore he arrives at Corinth (8:6, 11; 9:4-5),61 it actually centers on the manner in
which one ought to contribute to this project. As the opening verses of 8:1-5
demonstrate, Paul showcases the Macedonians as a gift-giving model for the

58 A paraphrase provided by Best, Thessalonians, 75.

59 Morris, Thessalonians, 71: “When Paul speaks of the gift they made, he puts ‘the gospel of
God’ first. Even when he is putting the emphasis elsewhere, he never loses sight of the
fact that it was the gospel that gave the reason for the very existence of the preachers.”
60 “Though Paul loves the Thessalonians,” states Best, “God’s love for them is primary and is
the sole basis of his approach to them” (Thessalonians, 71; cf. also Morris, Thessalonians,
61 For an excellent study on Paul’s collection, see David J. Downs, The Offering of the Gentiles:
Paul’s Collection for Jerusalem in Its Chronological, Cultural, and Cultic Contexts (WUNT
2/248; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008).
Paul and Seneca on the Self-Gift 141

Corinthians to emulate.62 He begins by notifying the Corinthians of the χάρις

τοῦ θεοῦ manifested in and through the Macedonian church (8:1). In the midst
of severe affliction and in the depths of radical poverty, the Macedonians para-
doxically abounded in joy (ἡ περισσεία τῆς χαρᾶς) and in a wealth of generosity
(τὸ πλοῦτος τῆς ἁπλότητος, 8:2).63 They gave according to (κατά) and beyond
(παρά) their financial ability (δύναμις), a self-sacrificial act which arose out of
their own volition (αὐθαίρετος, 8:3).64 Even in the face of sheer destitution, the
Macedonians “earnestly begged” (μετὰ πολλῆς παρακλήσεως δεόμενοι) to par-
ticipate in this χάρις65 – that is, the collection for the poor Jerusalem saints
(8:4).66 Apostolic coercion did not force them to contribute. Their personal in-
volvement emanated from an unconstrained willingness and noble desire to
give their material possessions, even their very selves, for the sake of others.
Paul’s paradoxical acclamation in 8:1-4 culminates in 8:5, where the Mace-
donians’s generosity surpasses the apostle’s expectations and gives rise to the
self-gift. They contributed, Paul recounts, καὶ οὐ καθὼς ἠλπίσαμεν ἀλλὰ ἑαυτοὺς
ἔδωκαν πρῶτον τῷ κυρίῳ καὶ ἡμῖν διὰ θελήματος θεοῦ (8:5). He assumed they
would give according to their means (cf. 8:12), but they gave far beyond that –
their voluntary giving involved their very persons (ἑαυτούς).67

62 H.D. Betz argues that Paul instigated a competitive rivalry between the Macedonians
and the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 8 and 9: A Commentary on Two Administrative Let-
ters of the Apostle Paul [Hermeneia; Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1985], 48-53; cf.
2 Cor 9:2-4; 11:9). More convincingly, James Harrison nuances Betz’s construal, positing
a friendly rather than contentious competition of beneficence, attested to in various an-
cient inscriptions (Paul’s Language of Grace [WUNT 2/172; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003],
63 This verse resounds with Stoic overtones, particularly in the way the Macedonians, like
Aeschines, “find the means for generosity in pinching poverty” (Ben. 1.9.1).
64 When speaking to the Corinthians directly, Paul will affirm that a gift is only “acceptable”
(εὐπρόσδεκτος, 8:11) if it is given willingly (προθυμία, 8:11-12). Since Paul has the Macedo-
nians’s example in view throughout his discourse, these terms also highlight the accept-
able manner of their voluntary giving, which can be compared with Seneca’s understand-
ing of voluntas (see n16) and libenter (e.g., Ben. 1.4.3).
65 The collection is considered a χάρις four times in this chapter (8:4, 6, 7, 19; cf. 1 Cor 16:3).
66 Although some may deem this verse hyperbolic and therefore fictitious, it stands to rea-
son that, even if hyperbole is employed, the element of truth can still be present.
67 Though absent here, the term ψυχή is conceptually present in the term ἑαυτούς. Paul
employs both terms when speaking of his self-gift in 1 Thess 2:8 (τὰς ἑαυτῶν ψυχάς) and
expresses his desire elsewhere for the immaterial ψυχαί of his children rather than their
material possessions (2 Cor 12:14: ἐγὼ δὲ ἥδιστα δαπανήσω καὶ ἐκδαπανηθήσομαι ὑπὲρ τῶν
ψυχῶν ὑμῶν).
142 Briones

While the precise nature of their self-gift has been debated,68 it is best ex-
plained by situating 8:5 within the theological context of Paul’s χάρις-discourse
in 8:1-2 and 8:9. Before speaking of human χάρις – a term which describes par-
ticipation in the collection and thus the Macedonians’s voluntary self-giving
(8:4) – Paul purposely draws attention to divine χάρις in 8:1:

Γνωρίζομεν δὲ ὑμῖν, ἀδελφοί, τὴν χάριν τοῦ θεοῦ τὴν δεδομένην ἐν ταῖς
ἐκκλησίαις τῆς Μακεδονίας.

We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been
given among the churches of Macedonia.

This is of the utmost importance for Paul.69 The circle of χάρις must begin and
end with God. Paul therefore strategically crafts his collection appeal in three
movements of gift, with χάρις coming from God (8:1), flowing through human
intermediaries to those in need (8:4; 9:9), and going back to God in thanksgiv-
ing (9:15). This divine momentum of χάρις demonstrates, as Beverly Gaventa
explains, that “the collection itself – on the face of it a human endeavor – has
its origin and energy in God’s grace.”70 Interestingly, the only two occurrences

68 Four primary interpretations have been posited: (1) conversion; (2) a rededication of their
lives to the Lord (Murray Harris, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on
the Greek Text [NIGTC; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005], 568); (3) a reference to ap-
proaching God in prayer, with his reply being to give themselves to Paul (Jean Héring, The
Second Epistle of Saint Paul to the Corinthians [London: Epworth, 1967], 59); (4) a devotion
to God’s service or a response to him and his cause (Charles Hodge, Commentary on the
Second Epistle to the Corinthians [London: Banner of Truth, 1963], 196-97; Betz, 2 Corinthi-
ans 8 and 9, 47-48; C.K. Barrett, A Commentary on the Second Epistle to the Corinthians
[New York: Harper/London: Black, 1973], 221). The inclusion of καὶ ἡμῖν renders option
(1) unviable, whereas option (2) presupposes a dysfunctional relationship between God,
Paul, and the Macedonians, an untenable proposition. Contrary to option (3), Paul does
not speak of prayer in that way, neither does πρῶτος and καὶ ἡμῖν indicate temporal pri-
ority, as if loyalty to Paul came afterwards. Therefore, option (4) appears to be best inter-
pretation. Though general, we will fill in the gaps of what it means to devote themselves
to God’s cause.
69 For an examination of other texts in the Pauline corpus, where divine grace is logically
anterior to human agency, see John M.G. Barclay, “Grace and Transformation of Agency
in Christ,” in Redefining First-Century Jewish and Christian Identities: Essays in Honor of Ed
Parish Sanders (ed. Fabian E. Udoh; Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008),
70 “The Economy of Grace: Reflections on 2 Corinthians 8 and 9,” in Grace upon Grace: Essays
in Honor of Thomas A. Langford (ed. Robert K. Johnston, L. Gregory Jones, and Jonathan
R. Wilson; Nashville: Abingdon, 1999), 51-61 at 55.
Paul and Seneca on the Self-Gift 143

of the phrase ἡ χάρις τοῦ θεοῦ appear in reference to divine grace in 8:1 but
human giving in 9:14, with ἐφ᾽ ὑμῖν appended. Thus, the Macedonians’s χάρις
– in its material (money/provisions) and immaterial (their selves) forms71 –
is divinely generated, empowered, even sustained by God’s χάρις in Christ (cf.
9:8-11), which finds its most lucid and fundamental expression in 8:9.
At the center of Paul’s appeal in 2 Cor 8-9 is the paradigmatic self-giving
love of Jesus Christ:72

γινώσκετε γὰρ τὴν χάριν τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, ὅτι δι᾽ ὑμᾶς
ἐπτώχευσεν πλούσιος ὤν, ἵνα ὑμεῖς τῇ ἐκείνου πτωχείᾳ πλουτήσητε. (8:9)

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that because he was
rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might
become rich.

The verbal and conceptual parallels between 8:9 and 8:1-5 are theologically il-
luminating. Take, for instance, the connection between ἡ χάρις τοῦ κυρίου (8:9)
and ἡ χάρις τοῦ θεοῦ (8:1), as the former occurrence of χάρις extends the mean-
ing of the latter: God’s gift of χάρις is Christ’s self-gift, given to the church.73
In other words, Christ’s self-giving dynamically actuates the self-giving of the
Macedonians, not only by imitating Christ but also by participating in the
divine momentum of gift in the Christ event, with the result that both of
these self-imparting acts are inseparable expressions of one and the same

71 While it cannot be denied that they contributed material possessions to the collection,
since that would be how one can be said to have contributed to project, their wealth pri-
marily consisted of generosity, as the phrase τὸ πλοῦτος τῆς ἁπλότητος indicates (Victor P.
Furnish, II Corinthians [AB 32A; Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1984], 400). However, see
David Horrell’s warning about over-spiritualizing Paul’s collection efforts (“Paul’s Collec-
tion: Resources for a Materialist Theology,” Epworth Review 22 [1995]: 74-83, esp. 76-79).
72 For the early history of reception, see P. Angstenberger, Der reiche und der arme Chris-
tus. Die Rezeptionsgeschichte von 2 Kor 8,9 zwischen dem zweiten und dem sechsten
Jahrhundert (Hereditas 12; Bonn: Borengässer, 1997). On whether πλούσιος ὤν refers
to Christ’s preexistence, human existence on earth, or death on the cross, see Mar-
garet Thrall, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians (ICC; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2000),
73 Orrey McFarland, God and Grace in Philo and Paul (NovTSup 164; Leiden: Brill, 2015), 204.
74 John M.G. Barclay asserts that “the Christ event is here not just an exemplum to be im-
itated by human observers (as if they independently had the resource or will to do the
same) but the identification of a divine momentum in which believers are caught up,
144 Briones

John Barclay further substantiates the divine-human interconnectedness of

grace by investigating the wealth-in-poverty paradox of 8:9 in a way that re-
defines the nature of self-giving at the divine and human level. After convinc-
ingly arguing that πλούσιος ὤν should be interpreted as a causal (“Because he
was rich”)75 rather than a concessive participle (“Although he was rich”),76 he
notes that the self-gift of Christ “consists not in giving up his wealth, to make
himself poor, but in using his wealth (of generosity) in making himself poor:
‘because he was rich (in generous self-giving), he became poor,’” concluding
that “‘wealth’ means not what Christ possessed, but, with a different and para-
doxical sense, the ‘wealth’ of his generosity.”77 This “wealth” is metaphorical
rather than literal. It is not a commodity being laid aside. Instead, it is con-
strued metaphorically as generosity, which expresses itself through the giving
of oneself to another by entering into their state of weakness and need, just
as Christ entered into the state of fallen humanity (yet without sin; cf. 2 Cor
Since the Christ-gift is the archetype for human giving, this definition of
wealth-as-generosity helpfully explains how the Macedonians, enduring se-
vere hardship and abysmal poverty, “abounded in a wealth of generosity” (8:2).
But how exactly does a community overflow with wealth-as-generosity in ma-
terial poverty? Precisely by drawing from another’s resource, namely, God’s
superabundant commodity of χάρις.78 Divine grace, by virtue of their union
with Christ, transforms them into his image, as they willingly participate in
the collection to alleviate the needs of the disadvantaged saints in Jerusalem.
They embody the richness of the Christ event not by becoming poorer while
others grow richer (cf. 8:13) but by displaying a remarkable animus through

and by which they are empowered to be, in turn, richly self-sharing with others” (“Manna
and the Circulation of Grace: A Study of 2 Corinthians 8:1-15,” in The Word Leaps the Gap
[ed. Ross J. Wagner, C. Kavin Rowe, and Katherine A. Grieb; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans,
2008], 409-26 at 421).
75 John M.G. Barclay, “‘Because He Was Rich He Became Poor’: Translation, Exegesis and
Hermeneutics in the Reading of 2 Cor 8.9,” in Theologizing in the Corinthian Conflict:
Studies in the Exegesis and Theology of 2 Corinthians (ed. Reimund Bieringer, Ma. Marilou
S. Ibita, Dominika A. Kurek-Chomycz, Thomas A. Vollmer; BiTS 16; Leuven: Peeters, 2013),
319-344 at 339-40.
76 He does, however, consider both readings valid (Barclay, “Because He Was Rich,” 332, 336,
77 Barclay, “Because He Was Rich,” 340; author’s italics.
78 On the economic metaphor of the abundance of grace in 2 Cor 8-9, see the illuminat-
ing discussion in Frances Young and David F. Ford, Meaning and Truth in 2 Corinthians
(London: SPCK, 1987), 166-85.
Paul and Seneca on the Self-Gift 145

the act of generous giving. After all, Paul cares more about the spirit in which
one gives rather than what one gives (8:12), which becomes even more evident
when considering the order of 8:10.
When recalling the initial pledge of the Corinthians, one would expect Paul
to say: “started not only to desire to do this work but even to do it.” But he says
the opposite: “not only to do this work but also [ἀλλὰ καί] to desire to do it”
(8:10). Desire takes precedence over doing; or, put differently, the animus of the
giver matters more than the res of the gift.79 He lays greater stress on the spirit
of the giver, which is a “wealth-in-generosity, not a wealth-in-possession.”80
Paul paradoxically relocates one’s wealth in one’s generous desire, expressed
in and through the self-giving love of Christ on behalf of others. A person
encumbered by poverty can give generously in spirit, because he or she does
not draw from his or her own resources, but from the inexhaustible wellspring
of divine generosity. This sort of wealth never diminishes. It only increases the
more one gives it away, the more one becomes poor on behalf of others (cf.
The Macedonians’s wealth-as-generosity, motivated by God’s selfless love
and resulting in selfless giving, is not only a non-divine reflection of God’s own
giving81 but also a Pauline version of a virtuous, philosophical principle – the
willing animus.

4 Paul and Seneca in Dialogue

The reciprocity of self-gifts between Paul and the Macedonians in 1 Thess 2:8
and 2 Cor 8:5 evinces two gift dynamics that correspond to Seneca’s construal
of gift: the worth of the recipient and the willing animus. The discovery of
these conceptual parallels places us in a good position to imagine a conver-

79 Calvin states, “Mark the way in which we shall always be liberal even in the most strait-
ened poverty – if by liberality of mind we make up for what is deficient in our coffers”
(Commentary on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians [Grand Rapids: Baker,
2003], 285). Alfred Plummer also explains that “St Paul speaks of the richness, not of their
gifts, which could not have been large, but of their minds. Munificence is measured, not
by the amount given, but by the will of the giver” (Second Epistle of St Paul to the Corinthi-
ans [ICC; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1915], 234; cf. also Joseph Amstutz, APLOTHS: Eine be-
griffsgeschichtliche Studie zum jüdischchristlichen Griechisch [Theophaneia 19; Bonn: Pe-
ter Hanstein, 1968], 103-04).
80 Barclay, “Because He Was Rich,” 341.
81 Tanner, Jesus, 68.
146 Briones

sation on the self-gift and to locate points of convergence and divergence be-
tween Paul and Seneca.
I imagine Seneca would applaud much in Paul. After expressing his admi-
ration of Paul’s love of paradox (i.e., wealth-in-generosity),82 Seneca would
especially commend the virtuous conduct of the Macedonians in 2 Cor 8:1-5,
demonstrated through their voluntary self-giving: how they understood that
the true value of gifts lies in the animus of the giver; how they “willingly” gave
according to and beyond their means; and how they managed to remain in-
different to the misfortunes imposed by Providence and maintain their joy in
spite of uncontrollable vicissitudes. What exemplars of the virtuous life! By
holding fast to reason (Ep. 66.32), their giving, like Aeschines’s, was marked
by an untrammeled voluntas, forbidding their impoverished circumstance to
limit the parameters of their generosity (4.10-11), and exhibited a rich animus,
exceeding their material boundaries by furnishing an immaterial gift (107.8-9),
thereby cultivating virtue, living according to nature, and ultimately attaining
their own true happiness. In so doing, they truly embody the Stoic axiom that
happiness depends entirely on oneself. Since “there is only one good, the cause
and the support of a happy life – trust in oneself” (31.3), it is therefore fitting
for Seneca to declare, “Make yourself happy through your own efforts” (31.5).
While Paul would certainly appreciate Seneca’s general agreement with
some of these ideas, he would nevertheless squirm with unreserved disap-
proval when hearing phrases such as “happiness depends entirely on oneself,”
“trust in oneself,” and “make yourself happy through your own efforts,” utterly
shocked that Seneca would interpret the Macedonians’s disposition and ensu-
ing behavior primarily as a product of their own human effort.
But, before Paul could retort, Seneca would take issue with the apostle’s
argument in 1 Thess 2:8, that the worthy (or beloved) status of the Thessaloni-
ans originates with God’s electing love rather than an inherent quality within
mankind. For Seneca, the “dignity of mankind” (dignitas hominis) is inherent
in our rational persona. This is because “the divine spirit” (pars divini spiri-
tus),83 along with reason as a portion of that spirit, has been bestowed by god

82 Paradoxical sayings played a crucial role in ethical appeals among the Stoics generally
and Seneca specifically (e.g., Ben. 2.31.2; 2.35.2-3; 5.12.3-7), with the particular intention of
overturning commonly held opinions in society (Inwood, “Paradox,” 74 and n40).
83 With regard to the ontology of the spirit in Stoicism and its implications for God’s rela-
tionship with the physical cosmos, see Troels Enberg-Pedersen, Cosmology and Self in the
Apostle Paul: The Material Spirit (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), as well as the
response by John M.G. Barclay, “Stoic Physics and the Christ-event: A Review of Troels
Paul and Seneca on the Self-Gift 147

and resides within mankind.84 Conversely, mankind has the task of cultivating
virtue,85 as they water the divine seeds scattered within their mortal bodies
(Ep. 73.16). Some attend to and nurture these seeds, while others kill them by
their own indolence. Because of this, Seneca could not agree with Paul that
worth lies solely in God’s love and election, without any prior assessment of
whether or not those persons tended to or neglected their divine seeds. The
worth of a person lies inherently within, though it must be maintained by
keeping the animus in conformity with nature, fate, reason, and therefore god
(or gods).86
Paul’s major complaint against Seneca, and thus the primary point of de-
parture between the two, would be that Seneca envisions a fundamentally
different gift-giving economy. For Paul, the initial self-giving of God in the
Christ event creates an unprecedented gift-economy. The self-gift of Christ,
celebrated in 2 Cor 8:9 as the “definitive revelation of grace,”87 effectuates a
self-giving momentum and establishes the gift-dynamics within this economy
of grace – hence the reason why Paul points to “the grace of God” in 8:1 as the
sole initiator and sustainer of the Macedonians’s generous self-gift. Contrary to
Senecan thought, divine grace is not supplemental to human action.88 It is the
very impetus that creates, energizes, and funds their self-giving for the poor
saints in Jerusalem. Small wonder that the Jerusalem saints will reciprocate
their gratitude to God (9:11-15), the ultimate giver. Unlike Aeschines, the Mace-
donians do not draw from “their own storehouse” over against fortuna/god.

Enberg-Pedersen, Cosmology and Self in the Apostle Paul: The Material Spirit (Oxford: Ox-
ford University Press, 2010),” JSNT 33.4 (2011): 406-14.
84 See Ep. 41.8; 66.12; 92.30; 120.14; Nat. 7.25.2; cf. J.N. Sevenster, Paul and Seneca (NovTSup;
Leiden: Brill, 1961), 72-74.
85 Although Seneca, along with other Stoics, seems to attribute this work to that of Na-
ture (cf. Nat. 1.praef.13; 2.45.1-2), the onus falls on the human agent to use the gifts god
has granted (e.g., Ep. 31.9). Unfortunately, a thorough investigation of divine and human
agency in Seneca cannot be carried out here.
86 Seneca, in accord with the monism of the early Stoicism (cf. Nat. 1.praef.13; 2.45.1-3), iden-
tifies god with nature, fate, and fortune (cf. Ben. 4.7.1-2; 4.8.1-2), and even refers to god as
totus ratio (Nat. 1.praef.13).
87 McFarland, The God Who Gives, 161.
88 This is not to deny that Seneca’s god plays a role in human effort. The planting of divine
seeds suggests that much (Ep. 73.16). But his god does not play as primary a role as in
Paul’s configuration of God. Nevertheless, teasing out this difference requires an essay of
its own, exceeding the scope of this present work.
148 Briones

Within the economy Paul envisions, the only available resource comes from
the inexhaustible wellspring of χάρις – God.89
From Seneca’s perspective, this presentation of god’s involvement in hu-
man affairs is far too personal.90 To be sure, god is immanent, inseparably
residing in the world.91 He even shares a close bond with humanity, since he
is our “Father”92 and naturally cares for his offspring.93 But his care is pri-
marily expressed through the impersonal laws of nature,94 which renders him
impersonal.95 Additionally, Paul’s view of humanity is far too dependent on
this immanent (yet transcendent), personal God. Self-sufficiency is the key to
But before Seneca could develop his argument further, Paul would add an-
other complaint against the philosopher: those residing within this self-giving
economy are considered worthy, not by morally cultivating “divine seeds,” but
by virtue of God’s creative initiative in the Christ event. To introduce the no-
tion of a person’s worth, when speaking of the economy of grace, promotes
moral excellence as a prerequisite for admittance. But God, in Paul’s eyes,
“justifies the ungodly [τὸν ἀσεβῆ],” or, to use Seneca’s terminology, the indigni.
These are the very objects of God’s self-giving love, whom he “calls96 . . . into
his own kingdom and glory” on the basis of divine election (1 Thess 2:12). Nev-
ertheless, a paradox remains in this present age. Those who were “ungodly”
and therefore “unworthy” of God’s gift of grace are now beckoned to “walk

89 Frances Young and David Ford accurately present God’s gift-economy as always having an
abundance (never a shortage) of grace (Meaning, 171-76).
90 The distinction between personal and impersonal would have been foreign to Seneca.
As Sevenster notes, “With the exception of a single instance (Ep. 16.4-6) Seneca never
perceived the existence of any dividing line” (Paul and Seneca, 43). Nevertheless, when
Seneca’s comments concerning god’s personal qualities are read in light of the more im-
personal characteristics, an impersonal conception of god emerges (see ibid., 35-43). An
even stronger statement comes from Aldo Setaioli: “His (Seneca’s) god is not, and cannot
be, a personal god” (“Physics III: Theology,” in Brill’s Companion to Seneca: Philosopher
and Dramatist [ed. Gregor Damschen, Andreas Heil, with the assistance of Mario Waida;
Leiden: Brill, 2014], 379-403).
91 Nat. 1.praef.13; 2.45.1-3.
92 See Ben. 2.29.4; 3.28.2; 4.8.1; 4.19.3.
93 Prov. 1.5.
94 See Ep. 71.16; 54.7; 74.20; 76.23; 96.2; 107.9-12; Vit. beat. 15.4; Prov. 5.6.
95 See n90 above.
96 For an assessment of Paul’s distinctive use of καλέω, which can appropriately be applied
to 1 Thess 2:12, see Stephen Chester, Conversion at Corinth: Perspectives on Conversion in
Paul’s Theology and the Corinthian Church (SNTW; London: T&T Clark, 2003), 59-63, 77-111.
Paul and Seneca on the Self-Gift 149

in a manner worthy [ἀξίως] of God” (2:12). Intriguingly, however, Paul only

mentions the notion of worth after underscoring divine agency in election
(1:4), as was shown earlier. Later in 1 Thessalonians, he amplifies God’s role in
their sanctification (3:11-13; 5:23-24) and ultimate salvation (2:12). What can be
deduced is that God’s gift to the unworthy equips and enables them to walk
worthily of God (cf. 1 Cor 15:9-10). Divine grace completes the transformation
that it requires and calls into existence (cf. Rom 4:17), as inhabitants of this
economy receive an inflow of grace which flows outward in self-giving love to-
ward others.97 In the end, this gift-economy turns everything up-side down (or
perhaps, right-side up?). It considers the unworthy worthy of receiving grace,
deems the poor rich, sets into motion a self-giving, other-regarding love in and
through the church, and promotes the embodiment of the self-giving love of
God in Christ as the fundamental dynamic of the divine economy.
By this point in the discussion, I picture Seneca with a Stoic expression on
his face but inwardly perplexed by Paul’s portrait of God as giving to the un-
worthy without any consideration of worth,98 either in their future actions99
or in the former conduct of their ancestors.100 How could this god be anything
other than immoral and illogical, lacking all signs of virtue and reason? And
yet, for Paul, it is precisely the seemingly immoral logic of the Christ-gift that
incites his exuberant expression of gratitude: “Thanks be to God for his inex-
pressible gift!” (2 Cor 9:15).

97 Human agency is not precluded here, but merely qualified. The view taken here coin-
cides with a model of divine agency entitled non-contrastive transcendence, which per-
ceives God’s sovereignty as neither limiting nor reducing human freedom, but grounding
and enabling it. And yet, these agencies are non-identical, since God is transcendently
distinct from human agents and only operates within our causal nexus analogically (cf.
John M.G. Barclay, “Introduction,” in Divine and Human Agency in Paul and His Cultural
Environment [ed. John M.G. Barclay and Simon J. Gathercole; London: T&T Clark, 2006],
1-8 at 7). As Martin Luther explains, “God does not work in us without us” (The Bondage
of the Will [trans. J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnston; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996], 268).
98 For Seneca, god gives discriminately, because giving a gift cannot be virtuous unless it is
accompanied by reason, thereby making iudicium necessary (Ben. 4.9.3-10.3). His “choice”
(electione) is therefore determined by the person’s animus (4.10.4-11.2). But, for Paul, God’s
election is not on the basis of one’s actions or worth (cf. Rom 9:10-12). That would make
“the Christ-event (and the election of Israel) a socially, morally or legally explicable event”
(John M.G. Barclay, “Grace Within and Beyond Reason: Philo and Paul in Dialogue,” in
Paul, Grace and Freedom: Essays in Honour of John K. Riches [ed. Paul Middleton, Angus
Paddison, and Karen Wenell; London: T&T Clark, 2009], 9-21 at 18).
99 See Ben. 4.32.1.
100 See Ben. 4.30-4.32.4; esp. 4.32.1-4.
“We are Debtors”: Grace and Obligation in Paul and

David A. deSilva

1 Introduction

Paul knows no gift of God which does not convey both the obligation and
the capacity to serve.1

With these words, Ernst Käsemann concisely captures the essence of grace,
and Paul’s understanding of God’s grace in particular, when rightly understood
from within the cultural context, lived social experiences and relationships,
and ethical reflection of the first-century Roman Mediterranean. God’s gift or
favor is not a one-way transaction; it is an act that creates relationship with,
and makes living out that relationship possible for, human beings. The perfect
gift-in-isolation is not the goal of givers in the first century C.E.2 The perfect gift
that creates, solidifies, celebrates, and deepens relationships of trust, loyalty,
and mutuality is the goal of the most enlightened givers in the Greek and
Roman periods.
In such a context, reciprocity – the moral obligation of a person to respond
favorably and generously to one who has shown favor and generosity to that
person – is not a theological problem. It is, rather, an indispensable facet of
how God’s grace “works” to reconcile human beings, to restore the relation-
ship human beings ought to have lived out before their Creator from the be-
ginning, and to transform the self-centered, self-serving person into a person
whose just acts and other-centered orientation will receive God’s verdict of
“righteous” when he judges all impartially. God’s acts of favor initiate an on-
going relationship of mutuality; God’s gift of the Holy Spirit, through whom
Christ, God’s righteous one, comes to life in each person, empowers human
beings to live out this relationship of mutuality.

1 Ernst Käsemann, “The ‘Righteousness of God’ in Paul,” in New Testament Questions of Today
(Philadelphia: Fortress, 1969), 168-93 at 170.
2 This is ably addressed by John Barclay in his contribution to this volume, building upon the
essay by Troels Engberg-Pedersen, “Gift-Giving and Friendship: Seneca and Paul in Romans
1-8 on the Logic of God’s χάρις and Its Human Response,” HTR 101.1 (2008): 15-44. Both schol-
ars rightly critique the application of the theories of gift (or the impossibility of the pure
gift) advanced in authors such as Jacques Derrida.

© Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2017 | DOI 10.1163/9789004341364 009

Grace and Obligation in Paul and Seneca 151

This essay is concerned primarily with the ethics of receiving and returning
favor for favor shown and the degree to which the ethic evidenced in Seneca,
our primary exemplar, permeates Paul’s understanding of God’s gracious inter-
ventions in humanity’s situation and the way human beings ought to respond
to these interventions (though important distinctions remain between these
two ethicists). In particular, it is concerned with the relationship between an
act of favor and the obligation to respond appropriately both in social relation-
ships between human beings and, conceptually at least, in relationships with
the divine in both authors.
Like many modern theologians in their reservations about linking grace and
obligation too closely, Seneca is deeply concerned to protect the virtue and
beauty of giving from the kind of calculation that turns a gift into a loan, an
attitude of which he is highly critical. It is equally clear, however, that he would
not countenance recipients of favor claiming, ostensibly so as to protect the
integrity of the giver’s generosity, that they have received a gift but have no
obligation to the giver and no absolute moral demand upon them to make
a return. Indeed, ancient ethicists univocally urge the opposite, and so does

2 Seneca on the Obligation of Gratitude

Seneca is pointed and unambiguous in his view of the moral obligation of re-
turning favor where favor has been shown: “The giving of a benefit is a social
act, it wins the goodwill of someone, it lays someone under obligation” (Ben.
5.11.5). Seneca refers here to one and the same “someone.” A gift, whether it
consists of material assistance, social influence, or any other form of kind-
ness, most naturally arouses reciprocal feelings of goodwill and appreciation
in the one benefited. Thus “favor (χάρις) gives birth to favor (χάριν),” as Sopho-
cles expresses the natural cycle (Ajax 522). At the same time, a gift necessi-
tates this very response. The gift creates an obligation to respond graciously,
such that Seneca can refer to the “debt of gratitude” or “owing favor.”3 Or, in

3 “We need to be taught to give willingly, to receive willingly, to return willingly, and to set
before us the high aim of striving, not merely to equal, but to surpass in deed and spirit
those who have placed us under obligation [quibus obligati sunt], for he who has a debt
of gratitude [qui referre gratiam debet] to pay never catches up with the favor unless he
outstrips it; the one should be taught to make no record of the amount, the other to feel
indebted for more than the amount” (Ben. 1.4.3). Cicero had previously asserted that no duty
(thus, moral obligation) is more important than returning gratitude to one’s benefactors (Off.
1.47); see also Aristotle, Eth. Nic. 8.14.3 (1163b12-15).
152 deSilva

the words of Euripides, “favor (χάρις) is due for favor (ἀντὶ χάριτος)” (Helen
How can both be true at the same time? First, let it be admitted that
Seneca almost delights in creating paradoxes in his discussion of patronage
and friendship and the ethos of reciprocity that creates and maintains these
relationships, defying neat systematization (not unlike Paul!).5 As in many of
those paradoxes, however, the variable is the person whom Seneca visualizes
as he speaks. In the virtuous person who is most attuned to the value of an-
other’s grace and favor, the desire to reciprocate arises naturally without con-
straint or sense of being burdened; an act of grace “conceives” within such a
person a response of gratitude that, in due course, gives birth to a favor in re-
turn. The person who is more self-orientated and inclined to gain rather than
to virtue, on the other hand, needs to hear and heed the warning: “Not to re-
turn gratitude for benefits is a disgrace, and the whole world counts it as such”

4 The polyvalence of χάρις is an interesting reflection of the social scripts and their ethos, as
it is sometimes used (a) to denote a person’s disposition to benefit another, or to show favor
(Aristotle, Rhet. 2.7.1 [1385a16-20]; Gen 6:8; 18:3; Exod 33:13; Prov 3:34; 22:1; Luke 1:30; Rom 5:15,
17; Heb 4:16; Jas 4:6); sometimes (b) to denote the favors given (this is particularly the case in
the inscriptions gathered in Frederick W. Danker, Benefactor: Epigraphic Study of a Graeco-
Roman and New Testament Semantic Field [St. Louis, MO: Clayton House, 1982], esp. 328; see
also Esth 6:3; Sir 3:31; Wis 3:14; 8:21; 4 Macc 5:9; 11:12; Rom 12:3, 6; Heb 12:15; 1 Pet 1:10, 13; 3:7;
4:10; 5:15), almost exclusively in this sense when it appears in the plural; and sometimes (c) to
denote the recipient’s reciprocal response (Demosthenes, De Corona 131; 2 Macc 3:33; 3 Macc
1:9; Luke 17:9; Rom 6:17; 7:25; 1 Cor 10:30; 2 Cor 8:16; 9:15; 1 Tim 1:12; 2 Tim 1:3; Heb 12:28; see,
further, D.A. deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture
[Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000], 104-05; James R. Harrison, Paul’s Language of
Grace in its Graeco-Roman Context [WUNT 2/172; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003], 179-83). “We
observe a subtle interplay of meaning that shifts from benefactor to beneficiary, with χάρις
in each case spelling out the appropriate behavior and responsibilities of each party. Thus
the semantic versatility of χάρις ensured that the word became intimately identified with
hellenistic reciprocity rituals” (Harrison, Paul’s Language of Grace, 51).
5 See D.A. deSilva, Perseverance in Gratitude: A Socio-rhetorical Commentary on the Epistle “to
the Hebrews” (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 240-44; idem., Honor, Patronage, Kinship &
Purity, 116-19. It is worth noting that this paradox continues essentially unchanged to this day
among Mediterranean communities. See Julian Pitt-Rivers, “Postscript: The Place of Grace in
Anthropology,” in Honor and Grace in Anthropology (ed. John G. Peristiany and Julian Pitt-
Rivers; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 215-46 at 231, 233: “You cannot pay for
a favor in any way or it ceases to be one, you can only thank, though on a later occasion
you can demonstrate gratitude by making an equally ‘free’ gift in return”; “A gift is not a gift
unless it is a free gift, i.e., involving no obligation on the part of the receiver, and yet . . . it
nevertheless requires to be returned.”
Grace and Obligation in Paul and Seneca 153

(Ben. 3.1.1).6 To live as a person of the first type is best, as there is no moral state
more blessed than to desire to do what one ought to do. But, failing that, Seneca
will not allow a person to think that he or she may both receive a benefit and
also keep back all of himself or herself from the giver.7 To do so undermines the
primary purpose of favor in the ancient world, which is to create and maintain
relationships.8 Troels Engberg-Pedersen captures this with poetic aptness and
beauty: “The mutual emotional attitude and relationship between giver and
receiver . . . defined the gift element in those acts. By giving, accepting, and
returning benefits between one another, giver and receiver establish, support,
and give expression to a personal involvement with one another that generates
a space of sharing and community within which they may live.”9
This is a facet of patronage, friendship, and benefaction that theologians
and exegetes guided by certain, typically Protestant theological commitments
tend to neglect. Showing favor and responding with gratitude are not about
trying to even out a score or settle accounts or earn future favors or manip-
ulate outcomes. These practices are about creating relationships of a certain
kind and quality and enjoying the wide range of the fruits of such relation-
ships. Seneca writes that “a benefit is a common bond and binds two persons
together” (Ben. 6.41.2). Because of the social bond that is created by the ex-
change of favor,

I must be far more careful in selecting my creditor for a benefit than a

creditor for a loan. For to the latter I shall have to return the same amount
that I have received, and, when I have returned it, I have paid all my debt

6 In Ben. 1.1.13, Seneca equates the failure to reciprocate with “sinning” (qui beneficium non
reddit, magis peccat). This is just one half, however, of one of Seneca’s paradoxes, the other
half of which is directed to the person who refuses to give a benefit out of fear that the
recipient will prove ungrateful: to act thus is perhaps to sin less, but it is still to sin, and to do
so “earlier” (qui non dat, citius).
7 To continue the conceit of conception, one simply may not keep within oneself the baby
that has come to full term.
8 This is well and rightly recognized in the literature on gifts and reciprocity. Thus, for example,
C.A. Gregory, Gifts and Commodities (London: Academic Press, 1982), 19: “What a gift transac-
tor desires is the personal relationship that the exchange of gifts creates and not the things
themselves”; Miriam Griffin, “De Beneficiis and Roman Society,” Journal of Roman Studies 93
(2003): 92-113, esp. 97, specifically commenting on Seneca’s De beneficiis, “Acts of beneficence
are presented as creating a relationship of amicitia.” See also Cicero, Off. 1.56.
9 Troels Engberg-Pedersen, “Gift-Giving and Friendship,” 20. See also John Barclay, in this vol-
ume: “. . .benefits are designed to create or cement relations of mutuality, such that a return
to the giver does not diminish or pollute the gift, but constitutes its fulfillment.”
154 deSilva

and am free; but to the other I must make an additional payment, and,
even after I have paid my debt of gratitude, the bond between us still
holds. [Thus] friendship endures. (Ben. 2.18.5)

The social interaction of giving and reciprocating is not a matter, or at least

not merely a matter, of the exchange of commodities. It cannot be reduced
to transactions, as it creates a potentially long-lasting connection between the
parties involved. Returning a favor is not “repayment,” hence “annulment” of
debt. It represents the ongoing refreshing of the relationship and its character
of mutual favor and seeking to please and advance the interests of the other.10
The practice, therefore, of giving and reciprocating benefits that permeates
the first-century Roman world thus becomes “the practice that constitutes the
chief bond of human society” (Ben. 1.4.2). The cycling of gifts creates the so-
cial bonds just as surely as the circling of electrons creates molecular bonds,
holding together the physical world.
For a person in the first-century Roman Empire – more particularly, for a
first-century recipient of grace – to regard an act of grace as a one-way transac-
tion would be well nigh unthinkable. If such a person were to regard it as such
and leave it at that, it would be beyond reprehensible. Rather, an act of grace
was a snapshot within an ongoing and ever-flowing relationship – or, to use
an image for the relationship current in the first century, a dance. Although
the ideal of reciprocity was often corrupted by the venality of individuals and
in need of being recalled to its virtuous basis,11 this ideal was readily avail-
able and ubiquitously inculcated. One of the cultural icons of this institution
and its ethos was the image of the Three Graces, the three goddesses dancing

10 I would hesitate to agree with Stephen C. Mott (“The Power of Giving and Receiving:
Reciprocity in Hellenistic Benevolence,” in Current Issues in Biblical and Patristic Interpre-
tation. Studies in Honor of Merill C. Tenney [ed. Gerald F. Hawthorne; Grand Rapids, MI:
Eerdmans, 1975], 60-72 at 60-61) that “the act of benefitting sets up a chain of obligations”
(emphasis mine) with the result that the return of a favor obliges the initiating giver to
give again, particularly in relationships that are clearly between people of unequal status
and resources. It would be more accurate to say (and a more accurate analysis even of his
example of King Attalos and the Sicyonians) that returning a favor disposes a benefactor
to continue to show favor toward that particular recipient (see Josephus, A.J. 4.8.13 §212).
In the case of longstanding friendship, of course, where parity exists and where the ques-
tion of “who started it” has receded in a long history of mutual assistance, support, and
delight, Mott’s observation would be accurate.
11 Miriam Griffin (“De Beneficiis and Roman Society,” 113) rightly observes that Seneca rein-
forces “the code at its most demanding level.” Regarding philosophical critiques of the
ethos of reciprocity, see, further, Harrison, Paul’s Language of Grace, 194-95.
Grace and Obligation in Paul and Seneca 155

hand-in-hand or arm-over-shoulder in a circle. Seneca offers an exegesis of the


Some would have it appear that there is one for bestowing a benefit, an-
other for receiving it, and a third for returning it. . . . Why do the sisters
hand in hand dance in a ring which returns upon itself? For the reason
that a benefit passing in its course from hand to hand returns neverthe-
less to the giver; the beauty of the whole is destroyed if the course is any-
where broken, and it has most beauty if it is continuous and maintains
an uninterrupted succession. . . . They are young because the memory
of benefits ought not to grow old. . . . the maidens wear flowing robes,
and these, too, are transparent because benefits desire to be seen. (Ben.

Seneca expresses hesitations regarding such moral allegorizing (see Ben.

1.3.6-10), or at least its overextension, but his moralizing interpretation of this
image says something at the very least about contemporary thinking about
grace and reciprocity.12 There is, however, also nothing here that is not explic-
itly affirmed elsewhere in Seneca’s own teachings.
Initiating the circle dance with a gift was a matter of choice on the part of
the giver; showing gratitude and returning the favor for a gift once accepted
was an absolute moral obligation.13 Just as one partner’s dance step almost
simultaneously precipitates the partner’s corresponding movement, “the man
who intends to be grateful, immediately, while he is receiving, should turn his
thought to repaying” (Ben. 2.25.3).14 There is opportunity even in the moment
of receiving to allow grace to kindle grace.

When we have decided that we ought to accept, let us accept cheerfully,

professing our pleasure and letting the giver have proof of it in order that
he may reap instant reward; for, as it is a legitimate source of happiness

12 Indeed, this line of commentary on the Three Graces extends at least as far back as Aris-
totle, who spoke of the public shrines dedicated to the Graces as reminders to all to return
kindnesses (Eth. nic. 5.5.7).
13 Seneca, Ben. 1.4.3; see also Aristotle, Eth. nic. 1163b12-15; Isocrates, Demon. 26; Sir 35:2.
14 The language of “repaying” is imprecise (Latin, de reddendo cogitet). It is not the re-
turn of a favor qua recompense or repayment so much as a reciprocal act of seeking-
to-benefit-in-return. See Robert Parker, “Pleasing Thighs: Reciprocity in Greek Religion,”
in Reciprocity in Ancient Greece (ed. Christopher Gill, Norman Postlethwaite, and Richard
Seaford; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 105-26, especially 108-09.
156 deSilva

to see a friend happy, it is a more legitimate one to have made him so.
Let us show how grateful we are for the blessing that has come to us by
pouring forth our feelings, and let us bear witness to them, not merely in
the hearing of the giver, but everywhere. He who receives a benefit with
gratitude repays the first installment on his debt. (2.22[.1])

The first phrase is important: accepting is a matter of choice, and thus of per-
sonal responsibility (see Ben. 2.18.5, cited above). Accepting the gift means
accepting the relationship with – and the obligation to – the giver. If one de-
cides to dance, one must dance gracefully and in step with one’s partner. The
first response is one of joy, appreciation, and testimony. An act of grace should
redound to the fame of the giver, contributing positively to his or her reputa-
tion as a person of virtue (specifically, the virtue of generosity).15 Saying “thank
you” was not to be a private affair (or, at least, not only a private affair), but a
broadly public one: “Waiting for there to be no witnesses before one renders
thanks amounts to denying one’s obligation” (Ben. 2.23.2).
Displays of gratitude, appreciation, and honor were appropriate responses
to the favor and goodwill of the giver, but the actual gift or assistance conferred
also calls for some return.16 In personal relationships of friendship, where the
parties were essentially social equals, it might be possible to find an opportu-
nity to return a gift or assistance of equal or even greater value.17 In personal
relationships of patronage, however, where one party was socially and/or eco-
nomically inferior to the other, the junior party would nevertheless do what

15 This was a long-standing element of reciprocity, constant from the Greek period into
and through the Roman period. See, e.g., J.H. Quincey, “Greek Expressions of Thanks,”
JHS 86 (1966): esp. 157: “Greeks saw an obligation created by a favor received and sought
to discharge it,” often using praise as a readily available and eagerly received medium.
Jerome H. Neyrey, S. J. (“Lost in Translation: Did It Matter If Christians ‘Thanked’ God
or ‘Gave God Glory’?” CBQ 71 [2009]: 1-23) is correct to insist that verbs of honoring or
testifying retain their semantic value in translation, rather than being rendered merely as
“thanking,” and that even where verbs of thanking are employed there is also an element
of rendering public honor and testimony.
16 “When a benefit has been graciously received, the giver has forthwith received gratitude
in return, but not yet his full reward; my indebtedness, therefore, is for something apart
from the benefit, for the benefit itself I have repaid in full by cheerfully accepting it”
(Ben. 2.33.3); “Goodwill we have repaid with goodwill; for the object we still owe an ob-
ject” (2.35.1).
17 On the distinction between patronage and friendship, see Richard P. Saller, “Patronage
and friendship in early imperial Rome: drawing the distinction,” in Patronage in Ancient
Society (ed. Andrew Wallace-Hadrill; London: Routledge, 1989), 46-62; idem, Personal Pa-
tronage under the Early Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 8-11.
Grace and Obligation in Paul and Seneca 157

was within his or her power to do by way of making a return – for example,
giving even more attention to increasing the honor of the giver through per-
sonal testimony and, in Roman contexts, being visible among the giver’s en-
tourage (Ben. 2.22.1; 2.24.4),18 and offering whatever service might be needed
or requested by the patron (Ben. 6.41.1-2). Returning a favor with a view to pro-
voking a further favor is as ungracious as giving with a view to preparing the
way for a particular return (Ben. 4.20.3). There is no room in Seneca’s thought
for a do ut des (“I give so that you might give”) strategy; it must always be do
quia dedisti (“I give because you have given”) or do ut tibi placet (“I give in order
to please you”).
Sometimes the dance step was rigorous, even demanding. Gratitude re-
quired loyalty to one’s partner in a grace relationship, even when costly. “There
is advantage in being grateful; yet I shall be grateful even if it harms me,” if, for
example, association with the person to whom I am indebted has become
unpopular (Ben. 4.20.1-2). The ingrate reasons: “I should have liked to return
gratitude, but I fear the expense, I fear the danger, I shrink from giving offence;
I would rather consult my own interest” (Ben. 4.24.2). The bond of favor and
gratitude was to be held inviolable, certainly above any considerations of self-
interest: “If you wish to make a return for a favor, you must be willing to go
into exile, or to pour forth your blood, or to undergo poverty, or, . . . even to
let your very innocence be stained and exposed to shameful slanders” (Seneca,
Ep. 81.27).19
Receiving favor without reciprocating – without feeling grateful, bearing
witness to the value of this act of favor, and being watchful for opportuni-
ties to benefit in return – was simply ugly. It defaced grace. Seneca indulges a
bit further in his use of the image of the Three Graces, commending one com-
ment from Chrysippus, who “urges us by saying that, in view of the fact that
the Graces are the daughters of Jupiter, we should fear that by showing a lack
of gratitude we might become guilty of sacrilege and do an injustice to such
beautiful maidens!” (Ben. 1.4.4).20 Seneca classed it as the worst of anti-social
crimes: “Homicides, tyrants, thieves, adulterers, robbers, sacrilegious men, and

18 See also Aristotle, Eth. nic. 1163b1-5, 12-18.

19 Andrew Wallace-Hadrill (“Patronage in Roman Society,” 82) observes that, in practice,
clients might readily desert a patron who fell into political trouble. Seneca clearly writes
against such practice as a fundamental violation of the mutual obligations forged by the
grace relationship.
20 Dio Chrysostom would agree that ingratitude was tantamount to sacrilege against these
goddesses (Or. 31.37).
158 deSilva

traitors there always will be; but worse than all these is the crime of ingrati-
tude” (Ben. 1.10.4).21
Ingratitude was also highly imprudent. Even though patrons and benefac-
tors were to give in the interest of the recipient and not in their own inter-
est (Ben. 1.2.3; 4.29.3), they had limited resources and needed to give wisely
– that is, to individuals or groups that understood how to be grateful (Ben.
1.1.2; 3.11.1).22 The person who understood how to show gratitude developed a
kind of positive credit rating in the eyes of future benefactors (Ben. 4.18.1),23
whereas the ingrate was recognized to be poor soil for the crop of favor: “That
which must go to a beneficiary of my own choosing will not be given to a man
whom I know to be ungrateful” (Ben. 4.28.6). Snubbing those who have shown
favor would potentially diminish the willingness to extend favor on the part of
the snubbed and those who have become aware of the snubbing. While Seneca
himself would urge his readers not to allow the vice of others to diminish their
own commitment to acting virtuously (specifically, by extending favor and act-
ing generously), it was nevertheless a danger of which he was aware and which
he used to caution his readers against ever thinking it advantageous to refrain
from returning the favor (Ben. 4.18.1-2).24
Though there was no law on the basis of which gratitude might be com-
pelled or ingratitude punished – indeed, if there were such a possibility the
return of favor would no longer be favor (Ben. 3.7.1-3) – the sanction of the
general contempt of all virtuous people reinforced each individual’s commit-
ment to act nobly as a recipient of favor and to honor the grace relationship
(see especially Ben. 3.17.1-3; 4.16.2). Conversely, the affirmation of all virtuous
people would provide positive reinforcement in this regard: “What is so praise-
worthy, upon what are all our minds so uniformly agreed, as the repayment of
good services with gratitude?” (Ben. 4.16.3).
Critics of attempts to read Paul’s discussions about God’s grace against the
background of reciprocity in the Greco-Roman world sometimes seek to dis-

21 Creating another paradox, Seneca writes: “Do you beware of committing this crime as be-
ing the greatest there is; if another commits it, pardon it as being the most trivial” (1.10.5,
emphasis mine). The one giving is urged always to be gracious, the one receiving to honor
the gift and the intentions and goodwill behind it.
22 See also Isocrates, Demon. 24; Sir 12:1. Although Seneca himself does not go so far, other
writers from the Greek and Roman periods bear witness to the fact that affronted bene-
factors could become dangerous enemies (Aristotle, Rhet. 2.2.8; 3 Macc 3:20-22a; 4 Macc
8:5-8; 9:10). Ingratitude could turn favor into all-out wrath. This, too, persists in a modern
Mediterranean context (see Pitt-Rivers, “Postscript,” 236).
23 See also Anaximenes, Rhet. Alex. 1421b33-1422a2; Sir 3:31.
24 See also Cicero, Off. 2.63.
Grace and Obligation in Paul and Seneca 159

tinguish the social practice from God’s giving by pointing out that God’s favor
is so immense that it cannot be repaid, almost drawing the corollary that it is
pointless for the recipients of God’s favor to regard it as their absolute duty to
try. Seneca, however, is well acquainted with the case of the gift that cannot
be repaid.

Patrons and benefactors typically had all the resources necessary to out-
give their clients. Clients nonetheless would be expected to reciprocate
for the benefits they received regardless of their benefactor’s wealth and
self-sufficiency. These relationships were voluntary and asymmetrical in-
volving “two parties of unequal status,” who exchange different goods
and services.25

Seneca writes:

No one is justified in making his weakness and his poverty an excuse for
ingratitude, in saying: “What am I to do, and how begin? When can I ever
repay to my superiors, who are the lords of creation, the gratitude that
is due?” It is easy to repay it – without expenditure if you are miserly,
without labour if you are lazy; . . . for he who receives a benefit gladly has
already returned it. (Ben. 2.30.2)

The expression of joy, appreciation, and thankfulness is, once again, a good
beginning. The junior party will also respond by giving the gift of increasing his
or her patron’s reputation: “I shall never be able to repay to you my gratitude,
but, at any rate, I shall not cease from declaring everywhere that I am unable to
repay it” (Ben. 2.24.4). The junior party can match the senior party’s devotion
to the relationship, can show himself or herself just as intent on making as
fulsome a return as possible as the giver was intent on making a pleasing and
beautiful gift.26 Thus the giver’s act of favor irrevocably binds the recipient to
himself or herself, and, indeed, binds the two parties together. The recipient

25 B.J. Oropeza, “The Expectation of Grace: Paul on Benefaction and the Corinthians’ Ingrat-
itude (2 Cor 6:1),” BBR 24.2 (2014): 207-26, esp. 213; see also Miriam Griffin, “De Beneficiis
and Roman Society,” 95. Aristotle viewed this as a typical situation (see Eth. nic. 8.14.2
26 “A man may have received more than he gave, greater ones, more frequent ones, yet, for
all that, he has not been conquered. If you reckon those that you have given over against
those that you have received, it is true, perhaps, that benefits are surpassed by benefits;
but, if you match the giver against the recipient, taking into consideration, as you must,
their intentions in themselves, the palm will belong to neither” (5.3.3); “If he matches his
160 deSilva

will also devote himself or herself to looking for the opportunity to return
the favor in some way, perhaps through a service, perhaps through a timely, if
smaller-scaled, gift or intervention (Ben. 7.14.4, 6). In such exchanges, Seneca
guides the patron to regard the gift as having been returned and the recipient
to understand that he or she has not yet made full and ample return (Ben
7.16.1, 4). When the latter says “I have done all in my power,” Seneca says, “Well,
keep on doing so” (Ben. 7.16.2).
Seneca describes the obligation of gratitude not as a burden, but as a delight
– at least to the virtuous person who understands the nobility of generous giv-
ing and reciprocating and the value of the relationship that is the end served
by the means of giving and reciprocating.

The grateful man delights in a benefit over and over, the ungrateful man
but once. But is it possible to compare the lives of these two? For the
one, as a disclaimer of debts and a cheat are apt to be, is downcast and
worried. He denies to his parents, to his protector, to his teachers, the
consideration that is their due, while the other is joyous, cheerful, and,
watching for an opportunity to repay his gratitude, derives great joy from
this very sentiment, and seeks, not how he may default in his obligations,
but how he may make very full and rich return. (Ben. 3.17.4)

The “disclaimer of debts,” begrudging a return to the generous parties who

have benefited him or her, regards the obligation of gratitude merely as a
debt, something that will diminish his or her resources, freedom, and pleasure.
Seneca lampoons this person because these attitudes move in the opposite di-
rection of investing in others and in the webs of relationships and mutual
bonds that, in his view, weave a strong society. The generous-hearted soul, by
contrast, gives himself or herself to the social dance of grace and finds it to
be a delight, no doubt, in large measure, because of the relationships that this
dance is creating, cementing, extending.

3 Paul and the Obligation to Reciprocate Within Human


It might be objected that Seneca writes from and to the upper echelons of
Roman society, and that the sentiments and relationships to which he gives

benefactor in spirit, even though he cannot match him in deeds, so long as he continues
in this state of mind, so long as he holds the desire to give proof of a grateful heart, what
difference does it make on which side the greater number of gifts is reckoned?” (5.4.1).
Grace and Obligation in Paul and Seneca 161

voice are far removed from the general population. The ethos of reciprocity,
however, though not its forms, permeated all levels of society, from the polis
to the oikos, from senators to the agrarian peasant villages.27 It is therefore not
surprising to find this ethos reflected in Paul’s letters to his congregations, all
the more as Paul himself would have been located in the upper hues of this
spectrum and the members of his congregation would reflect a broad palette
of the same.28
Paul characterized his relationship with the Christians in Philippi as one of
friendship. They enjoy a “partnership” (κοινωνία, Phil 1:5) in the Gospel. The
Philippians have sent Paul material support by the hand of Epaphroditus to
help him during a period of imprisonment (Phil 2:25; 4:14-20), showing them-
selves to be his partners (συγκοινωνήσαντές μου τῇ θλίψει, Phil 4:14) at a time
of need. Most tellingly, Paul speaks of them as the only congregation that
has “enacted a relationship with me in the matter of giving and receiving”
(ἐκοινώνησεν εἰς λόγον δόσεως καὶ λήμψεως, Phil 4:15), a classic invocation of the
language of friendship as a relationship of reciprocal assistance. Given Paul’s
evident attention to this relationship, it may be preferable to read his affirma-
tion in Phil 1:7 as a statement about “all of you being my grace-partners” or “all
of you sharing a relationship of grace with me,” rather than sharing together
“in God’s grace,” as the NRSV renders this verse with a note acknowledging the
absence of “God’s” as a qualifier in the text.29

27 See Harrison’s illuminating study of charis and reciprocity in non-literary papyri (Paul’s
Language of Grace, 64-95); also Peter Garnsey and Greg Woolf, “Patronage of the rural
poor in the Roman world,” in Patronage in Ancient Society (ed. Andrew Wallace-Hadrill;
London: Routledge, 1989), 153-70; deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity, 99-100; Hes-
iod, Works and Days 342-51, 401-04.
28 On the diversity in social level within a Pauline congregation, see the classic studies of
Gerd Theissen (The Social Setting of Pauline Christianity [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982],
69-119) and Wayne A. Meeks (The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle
Paul [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983], 51-73) as well as the overview by Bengt
Holmberg (Sociology and the New Testament: An Appraisal [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990],
21-76). Markers suggestive of a higher rather than a lower status for Paul include: Roman
citizenship; formal education (in Tarsus and Jerusalem); and social networks (personal
connection with the rabbi Gamaliel, a commission from the high priest). All of this de-
pends, of course, on the reliability of the picture of Paul in Acts to this extent.
29 That God is a third party within this grace-relationship, however, is also evident from
4:10-20. See, further, D. Briones, “Paul’s Intentional ‘Thankless Thanks’ in Philippians
4.10-20,” JSNT 34 (2011): 47-69 as well as Barclay’s essay in this volume. Ben Withering-
ton III (Friendship and Finances in Philippi [Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International,
1994], 122-133) offers an instructive delineation of the fine lines that Paul is attempting to
walk in the span of these few verses.
162 deSilva

Paul’s assumptions about reciprocity are evident particularly in Phil 2:1-4,

where he makes an admittedly unselfish request:

If, then, there is any encouragement in Christ, if any experience of love’s

consolation, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any experience of com-
passion or mercy, fill up the measure of my joy so that you may be like-
minded, having the same love, harmonious, agreeing – nothing out of
strife or empty conceit, but humbly considering one another to surpass
yourselves, not looking out each one for his or her own interests but in-
deed each for the interests of the others.30

Paul’s request to “fill up the measure of my joy” that follows upon the “if”
clauses commands attention here. This clause could easily have been omitted,
with Paul moving directly into imperatives to “be like-minded,” etc.31 Instead,
he focuses the various individuals in the congregation, some of whom are
clearly not disposed to “be like-minded” (4:2-3), on their debt of gratitude to
their imprisoned friend, whose burden they now have the opportunity to ease
beyond their material assistance by dealing with those internal problems that
give him cause for concern or even grief. The “if” clauses that serve as pream-
ble to this request recall facets of the congregation’s experience of God’s favor
and gifting and perhaps also the experience of intimate human fellowship that
followed as a consequence. These experiences are the direct consequences of
Paul’s mediation of divine favor, effected in the preaching of the good news
in Philippi and nurturing of this congregation in the new faith. The propriety
of reciprocating – even more fully than they have in the form of the gifts sent

30 Attention is frequently given to the significance of the textual variant in this verse,
namely the presence or absence of καὶ in the second clause: μὴ τὰ ἑαυτῶν ἕκαστος
σκοποῦντες ἀλλὰ [καὶ] τὰ ἑτέρων ἕκαστοι (Phil 2:4). External evidence strongly supports
its presence (the text-critical quadrifecta of P46, ‫א‬, A, and B); the two cardinal rules of
textual criticism would omit it as the shorter and more difficult meaning. If its inclusion
is accepted, it is hardly clear that the word should be read as “also” (thus affirming self-
centered concern as long as it coexists alongside concern for others), all the more as there
is nothing to qualify the negation of self-centered concern in the first clause (no “not only
for one’s own interests,” as inserted in some fashion by ESV, NLT, NASB, HCSB, NET), and
not rather as an intensifier (“even, indeed”).
31 So, rightly, Gordon D. Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerd-
mans, 1995), 183. Peter T. O’Brien (Commentary on Philippians [NIGTC; Grand Rapids:
Eerdmans, 1991], 176) recognizes this to provide additional motivation for the Philippians
to resolve their internal issues.
Grace and Obligation in Paul and Seneca 163

through Epaphroditus – becomes an incentive to the believers to deal with the

internal discord. Love for Paul, their partner in the matter of giving and receiv-
ing, the partner who has connected them with the Divine Patron,32 is expected
to outweigh internal strife and lead to the restoration of harmony.
Paul exhibits here a very subtle use of recalling benefits to harness the hear-
ers’ sense of gratitude and obligation so as to motivate a particular return on

32 David Downs (“Was God Paul’s Patron? The Economy of Patronage in Pauline Theology,”
in Engaging Economics: New Testament Scenarios and Early Christian Reception [ed. Bruce
Longenecker and Kelly Liebengood; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 129-56, challenges
the propriety of using the term “patron” or “benefactor” to characterize God in Paul’s the-
ology, primarily on the grounds of Paul’s not using the term to refer to God (preferring
the language of parent and, therefore, kinship relations, 155-56) and of “the unbalanced
and potentially exploitative nature of patron-client relationships” which would be un-
seemly if applied to the relationship between God and human beings. While this is not
the place for a detailed critique of Downs’s essay, my reasons for rejecting his arguments
are, briefly, as follows. (1) Downs claims that “nowhere in the Corinthian correspondence
is God described with terminology taken from the realm of the Roman patronage sys-
tem” (132 n9), but he really means that God is not named using the nouns for “patron”
or “benefactor.” God is certainly described as a benefactor by virtue of the fact that Paul
speaks often of the good things that God has done and the good gifts God has given. The
prominence of the terminology of “grace” (χάρις) in Paul, moreover, evidences Paul’s use
of “terminology taken from the realm of . . . patronage” (though, it is true, not particu-
larly the Roman patronage system). (2) Adoption of an adult child, while establishing a
kinship relationship, is the ultimate act of patronage. Julius Caesar did not abandon his
role as Octavian’s patron by becoming his father; he consummated that role in this act.
That Paul speaks of God as adoptive father (Rom 8:15, 23; Gal 4:5; Eph 1:5) to himself and
to the converts is no argument against Paul’s conceiving of God as their benefactor and
patron. (3) Just because a system could be perverted, it does not follow that Paul cannot
think of patron-client or benefactor-beneficiary relationships at their best as illustrative
of divine-human relationships. (4) A lot of Jewish authors contemporaneous with Paul
speak of God’s benefits and the reciprocal obligations of human beings (4 Maccabees,
Hebrews), some even going so far as to use the language of “benefactor” (e.g., Philo); Paul
stands more squarely within this trend than against it, particularly once point 2 above is
understood. (5) While Downs is correct that Paul does not conceive of God’s economy as
one of limited goods (152-54), it does not follow that God cannot be the ultimate Patron or
Benefactor in an economy of unlimited goods. The point of differentiation is not the re-
lational model, but the conceptualization of the “market.” Downs is, of course, correct to
distance Paul’s conception of the relationship between the Divine Patron and the human
recipients of divine χάρις from the peculiar forms and practices of Roman patron-client
relations (e.g., the morning salutation, though one wonders if the development of the
practice of morning prayer in the Roman church was not thought of as a kind of parallel
to this by the worshipers), but this distinction is hardly novel.
164 deSilva

this new occasion.33 He is far less subtle when he writes to Philemon on behalf
of Onesimus. Indeed, by Seneca’s standards, Paul appears rather rude. Ones-
imus has likely sought out Paul as a member of Philemon’s circle of friends
and patrons, hoping that he might act as a mediator with Philemon in his sit-
uation.34 He would, nevertheless, have been in considerable danger had he
been apprehended en route to Paul, and only a short letter protected him on
his return.35
Paul prominently acknowledges Philemon’s favors bestowed on fellow
Christians (Phlm 5, 7), perhaps chiefly among those in the congregation meet-
ing in his house (Phlm 1b-2). He appeals to Philemon now on the basis of the
latter’s reputation for and evident commitment to generosity, which Phile-
mon’s “love,” perhaps here specifically the love of amicitia shared between
Philemon and Paul, will no doubt support and make effective in this particular
instance. Nevertheless, Paul makes the claim that what he requests he could
command (Phlm 8, 14), claiming a degree of superior status in the relationship
and also hinting at the possibility of his putting that relationship explicitly on
the line should his request be refused.
The point at which the expectation of reciprocity becomes glaringly explicit
is Phlm 17-20:

If, then, you hold me as a partner [κοινωνόν], receive him [Onesimus] as

you would receive me. And if he has wronged you in regard to any matter

33 One cannot help but draw the comparison with Seneca’s musings concerning how he
would formulate such a reminder as motivator, drawing upon lines from Vergil’s Aeneid
and the relationship of Dido and Aeneas: “Not even when complaining of him [the
friend slow to reciprocate] would I ever say ‘Needy I found him, a wretch, cast up on
the shore/And, fool, the half of my kingdom I made his store.’ This is not to remind, but
to reproach. . . . It would be enough, and more than enough, to refresh his memory with
the gentle and friendly words: ‘If I to you by aught have help or pleasure brought’ and
he, in turn, would say:  ‘Brought me help? “Needy you found me, a wretch, cast up on the
shore!”’” (7.25.2) Paul comes close to the tone and effect of Dido’s “If I to you by aught
have help or pleasure brought” in Phil 2:1.
34 See Peter Lampe, “Keine ‘Sklavenflucht’ des Onesimus,” ZNW 76 (1985): 135-37; Joseph
Fitzmyer, Philemon (AB; New York: Doubleday, 2000), 20; Harrison, Paul’s Language of
Grace, 328-329. For a more thorough review of how Paul has crafted his appeal by playing
both on the conventions of friendship and brokerage and on the rhetoric of making a
public request for favour, see D.A. deSilva, An Introduction to the New Testament: Contexts,
Methods & Ministry Formation (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2004), 671-75.
35 Markus Barth and Helmut Blanke, The Letter to Philemon (ECC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,
2000), 228.
Grace and Obligation in Paul and Seneca 165

or owes you anything, charge this to me. I, Paul, write this with my own
hand: ‘I will make compensation’ (in order that I may not say to you that
you owe me your very self). Yes, brother, I want to have this benefit from
you in the Lord: refresh my heart in Christ!

Among other motivators, here we find Paul using a reminder of his own past
benefactions to Philemon as an incentive for – even a rhetorical constraint
upon – Philemon to grant Paul’s present request.36 Paul’s attempt at “not men-
tioning” this debt does not begin to soften the fact that he does mention it, and
quite openly.37 There was a hint of this also in verse 13, where Paul asks Phile-
mon to allow Onesimus to remain with Paul to serve him during his imprison-
ment in Philemon’s stead or on Philemon’s behalf (ὑπὲρ σοῦ). The assumption
here is that this service is owed Paul; the only question ought to be who will
actually discharge this service. Paul’s logic is simple: “this is your chance, Phile-
mon, to show gratitude for my previous salutary interventions in your life; this
is your chance to discharge that debt of gratitude, to give the next Grace a
twirl in the dance of reciprocity.” Once again, any friction in the relationship
between Philemon and Onesimus is swallowed up by the bond of friendship
with Paul and the obligations to “make his joy complete,” as it were.

36 Seneca was very cautious about recalling former benefits as a motivator for a return of
favor, a practice about which he can write scathingly (Ben. 2.11.1-2). He does leave room for
such reminders, however, where the stakes are compellingly high – “if . . . the safety of my
children is at stake, if my wife is threatened with danger, if the safety of my country and
my liberty impel me to a course that I should prefer not to take” (Ben. 5.20.7). He denies
that he thus “turns a benefit into a loan,” for his aim is merely to remind and to awaken
the goodwill that is latent and dormant (5.21.2), giving the friend or client “an opportunity
to show his gratitude” (5.22.2-5.23.1). In every case, this is to be done “modestly, with
no air of making a demand or of claiming a legal right” (7.23.3). On this point, see also
Stephan J. Joubert, Paul as Benefactor: Reciprocity, Strategy and Theological Reflection in
Paul’s Collection (WUNT 2/124; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2000), 46; Oropeza, “Expectation
of Grace,” 215. The recent essay by Thomas Blanton (“The Benefactor’s Account-book:
The Rhetoric of Gift Reciprocation according to Seneca and Paul,” NTS 59 [2013]: 396-414)
draws a sharp contrast here between Seneca, who refuses to turn a benefaction into a
loan, and Paul, whose economic location does not afford him the same luxury as he
attempts to obtain Onesimus’s services from Philemon.
37 Harrison (Paul’s Language of Grace, 329) reads Phlm 18-19a as “Paul . . . abandon[ing] his
traditional right to reciprocity from Philemon, his client, when he offers to reimburse per-
sonally any losses that Philemon may have incurred through Onesimus’ absence.” I would
read this, instead, as an ironic “I. O. U.” on which it would be impossible for Philemon in
good faith to collect – “[I make this offer] in order that I might not have to say to you that
you owe me your very self” (v. 19b).
166 deSilva

A third example of Paul’s expectations of reciprocity in human relation-

ships, particularly extending to relationships within the Church, can be found
in Romans 15:25-27:

And now I am going to Jerusalem to do service to the saints. For Mace-

donia and Achaia were pleased to make a certain connection38 with the
poor among the saints who are in Jerusalem. For it pleased them, and
they are their debtors. For if the Gentiles received a share in their [i.e.,
the Jerusalem Christians’] spiritual things, they [i.e., the Gentile Chris-
tians] owe it to them to be of service to them in physical things.

Here we find the clearest expression by Paul of the collection as an act of reci-
procity, a response of gratitude to the “saints at Jerusalem” for the share the
Gentile Christians have enjoyed in the Jewish Christian saints’ spiritual bless-
ings. Interestingly, Paul invokes both topics found also in Seneca in discussing
the giving of a benefit and its reception by the intended beneficiary, namely
provoking reciprocal favor and incurring an obligation (see discussion of Ben.
5.11.5 above): the Gentile Christians “were pleased” to make this gift to the
Christians in Jerusalem, and the Gentile Christians “are indebted” to them so
as to do so.39

38 See Gerald Peterman, “Social Reciprocity and Gentile Debt to Jews in Romans 15:26-27,”
JETS 50.4 (2007): 735-46, on the idiom κοινωνίαν τινὰ ποιήσασθαι (15:26) as more likely
meaning “establish fellowship” than “make a contribution,” emphasizing the relational
consequences of gift-giving (esp. 735-40). BDAG, 553, prefers this meaning for the idiom
as well, based on Peterman’s earlier article, “Romans 15.26: ‘Make a Contribution’ or ‘Es-
tablish Fellowship,’” NTS 40 (1994): 457-63. David Downs (The Offering of the Gentiles:
Paul’s Collection for Jerusalem in Its Chronological, Cultural, and Cultic Contexts [WUNT
2/248; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008], 17 n55) rightly notes that in other instances this
formula is used to express the expectation not only of friendship but of the sharing of ac-
tual resources, though the formula κοινωνίαν ποιήσασθαι is significantly qualified to make
this more precise nuance clear (in Demosthenes, 3 Philip. 28.1-6, “to establish a fellow-
ship of help and friendship,” κοινωνίαν βοηθείας καὶ φιλίαν . . . ποιήσασθαι). Of course Paul
also expects that this “connection” will be established on the basis of an act of friendship
involving the sharing of material resources, as is appropriate for friends who “hold all
things as common property” (Aristotle, Eth. nic. 9.8.2 [1168b7-9]), but Peterman is right
that the act is more than a “contribution”; it is an act that binds two parties together in a
39 Expectations of reciprocity appear to be at work also in Rom 1:11-15, where the step Paul
takes from his affirmation of a desire to benefit the Christians in Rome to an affirma-
tion of his intention that they should mutually benefit one another could be explained
Grace and Obligation in Paul and Seneca 167

4 Paul and the Obligation to Reciprocate in the Divine-Human


Greek and Roman ethicists placed the gods on a continuum with human bene-
factors; they were simply the greatest and most perfect givers of all. Honoring
the divine for its great and innumerable benefits was generally regarded as
the appropriate – and essential – return.40 The premise of a debt of gratitude
owed the deity is rooted not just in Greco-Roman ethics, but in the heritage
of the Jewish Scriptures as well. It is apparent, for example, in the first com-
mandment: “I . . . brought you out of Egypt; you will have no gods before me”
(Exod 20:2-3; Deut 5:6-7). God’s act of deliverance calls for a response of ex-
clusive loyalty and reverence for the Divine Benefactor. Certain offerings are
conceptualized as gifts “given back” to God in acknowledgment of God’s gifts
(Num 18:9: LXX: ἀποδιδόασίν; MT: ‫) ָיִ֣שׁיבוּ‬. The psalmist asks the rhetorical but
necessary question: “What shall I give to the Lord in light of all the gifts he had
given to me?” (‫ ָאִ֥שׁיב ָֽמה־‬in MT Ps 116:12; τί ἀνταποδώσω in LXX Ps 115:3). He goes
on to name a variety of acts that he will undertake as a fitting response, most
of these having to do with bearing witness to God’s acts of deliverance and
increasing God’s fame in the land. Jewish authors express the conviction that

in terms of reciprocity rather than the apostle’s modesty, as well as in Rom 16:2 and
Paul’s commendation of Phoebe, who has acted as a benefactor to him “and to many”
in Corinth/Cenchraea, whom Paul’s contacts in Rome (e.g., Prisca, Aquila, Paul’s relatives
named in his greetings) can now receive as a friend and to whom they can and should
extend every courtesy (see Susan Mathew, Women in the Greetings of Romans 16.1-16:
A Study of Mutuality and Women’s Ministry in the Letter to the Romans [LNTS; London:
Bloomsbury, 2013], 83-85). On Phoebe’s role as “benefactor” in a relationship of equals
with Paul rather than as “patron” in an unequal one, see Erlend D. MacGillivray, “Ro-
mans 16:2, προστάτις/προστάτης, and the Application of Reciprocal Relationships to New
Testament Texts,” NovT 53 (2011): 183-99. Nevertheless, the fact of her benefitting “many”
attests to her prominence and, from a social point of view, precedence within the Chris-
tian community. Harrison (Paul’s Language of Grace, 325-26) raises questions about how
effective Paul’s commendation of Phoebe would be if Romans 16 is indeed addressed to
a congregation that does not know Paul personally. However, Paul knows a good num-
ber of people in the Roman churches (Rom 16:3-15), and these individuals would, at the
very least, seek to “repay Phoebe on [Paul’s] behalf,” if not act as catalysts for the broader
house churches to receive Phoebe.
40 See Seneca, Ben. 1.1.9; 2.30.1-2; 4.26.1; 4.28.1; Aristotle, Eth. nic. 8.14.4 (1163b16-18); Philo,
Plant. 126-131. Mott (“Power of Giving,” 64-65) finds several references in Philo on the
failure to honor the divine as the greatest species of ingratitude among the genus of
responses to benefactors: Philo, Leg. 118; Opif. 169; QG 2.50; QE 2.49.
168 deSilva

God’s gift of life necessitates loyalty to God, even at the cost of life itself, which
is regarded as a fitting return of the benefit (see, e.g., 4 Macc 13:13; 16:18-19).
There is considerable resistance to acknowledging the presence of expecta-
tions of reciprocity – or, perhaps more precisely, the obligation of reciprocity –
on the part of human beings in the New Testament, and especially in Paul, the
champion of the Gospel of “grace alone” or “faith alone”41 (who never himself
uses the word “alone” to qualify either noun). Nevertheless, in many passages
Paul expresses the conviction that God’s favor requires a matching human
response of gratitude and reciprocal self-giving – at least that the natural,
proper, virtuous, and expected response to God’s favor would be a reciprocal
self-giving on the part of those who embrace God’s generous gift.
One of the most outstanding of these is found toward the climax of Paul’s
reflections in 2 Corinthians 1-7 on the nature of his ministry and how it makes
the power of God in Christ known and evident in the world:

Christ’s love42 constrains us, who have decided this: that one person died
on behalf of all people, therefore all people died; and he died on be-
half of all in order that those who continued living might live no longer
for themselves but for the one who died and was raised on their behalf.
(2 Cor 5:14-15)

Paul declares himself to be motivated, even compelled, by Christ’s love for him
and for his fellow human beings. His mission represents a part of his discharge
of his obligation to the Christ who “loved me and gave himself over for me”

41 It is relevant, though it would take us too far afield here, to consider the role of the πίστις
word group in the context of relationships of patronage, friendship, and benefaction.
πίστις (“faith”) is not merely believing something about what God has done, but keeping
faith within the grace-relationship that God has created – or, better, that God has revived
after humanity had already proven unfaithful in the past. See deSilva, Honor, Patronage,
Kinship & Purity, 115-116; Engberg-Pedersen, “Gift-Giving and Friendship,” 29, 31.
42 While the phrase ἡ γὰρ ἀγάπη τοῦ Χριστοῦ can be construed on the basis of either a subjec-
tive genitive (“Christ’s love” for others) or an objective genitive (our “love for Christ”), the
subjective genitive has the stronger support among commentators and their arguments.
See Frank J. Matera, II Corinthians (NTL; Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003),
132-33; Raymond F. Collins, Second Corinthians (Paideia; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic,
2013), 118; C.K. Barrett, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians (HNTC; London: Harper &
Row, 1973), 167 (though he allows more room for a plenary sense); Margaret E. Thrall,
2 Corinthians 1-7 (ICC; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1994), 408-09; Victor P. Furnish, II Corinthi-
ans (AB; New York: Doubleday, 1984), 309, 326. See also Rom 5:5, 8; 8:35; 2 Cor 13:13; Gal
Grace and Obligation in Paul and Seneca 169

(Gal 2:20). Christ having died for Paul, Paul now honors his Benefactor and
his Benefactor’s gift by living for him, for his purposes, for his agenda, to the
extent that he can say “I’m living, but it’s no longer me, but Christ is living
in me” (Gal 2:20a). Paul feels gratitude toward Christ and has reciprocated
Christ’s disposition to be generous: “Goodwill we have repaid with goodwill;
for the object we still owe an object” (Ben. 2.35.1), here a life for a life.
It is to this same response of gratitude, of returning a life to the one who
gave his own life over “for all,” that Paul calls all people in his mission (2 Cor
5:14-15), announcing Christ’s gracious act and calling all to live within and from
the reciprocal relationship God has initiated in Christ. This is a key statement
reflecting the ethos of reciprocity and the expectations attached to receiving
benefits (even, in this case, presented in terms of the benefactor’s purposes
or expectations).43 Many commentators notice here the purpose of Christ’s
death, namely to free human beings from a self-centered to an other-centered
(by means of becoming Christ-centered) existence.44 Fewer recognize the ele-
ment of reciprocal obligation on the part of human beings to respond in this
manner, namely by giving up their self-serving lives and using their remaining
time in the flesh to serve Christ’s interests instead. C.K. Barrett and Victor P.
Furnish are notable exceptions:

His once-for-all death is the death of all men, so far as they are willing
to die with him; there is no question of such a change taking place apart
from the realm of actual obedience and unselfish living. . . . Whereas

43 N.T. Wright reads 2 Cor 5:14-21 in the context of Paul’s extensive defense of his apostleship
in 2:14-6:13, which is surely correct, but this leads Wright to incorrect conclusions about
the limits on the meaning this verse, namely that 2 Cor 5:15b is all about Paul living for
Jesus and not a general statement that all indeed are bound now to live for the one who
died and was raised on their behalf (Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision [Downers
Grove: InterVarsity, 2009], 161). The phrase “being convinced that” is vitally important
here: Paul steps out of his discussion of himself and his team as ambassadors to speak
of the fundamental convictions that drive him in his mission, and this conviction quite
naturally applies to all human beings for whom Christ died. Paul’s mission is thus indeed
to bring about the obedient response to the self-giving patron and the return on the part
of all benefitted (a life for a life) that the patron merits, calling “all” – “those who [still]
live” and are thus able to receive and give back to the one who died for them – to render
to Christ his due by yielding their lives to him, even as Paul does (see Gal 2:19-20) and as
Paul hopes will occur in his converts (see Gal 4:19).
44 See, e.g., Collins, Second Corinthians, 119; Matera, II Corinthians, 135; Ben Witherington III,
Conflict and Community in Corinth: A Socio-rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians
(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 394; Thrall, 2 Corinthians 1-7, 411-12.
170 deSilva

Christ lives, he lives to God (Rom. vi. 10b), and corresponding to this is
the new life lived in indebtedness and obedience to Christ by those who
have died in his death and risen in his resurrection.45

Thus, faith is understood to be truly liberating precisely because it places

one under the claim as well as the gift of Christ’s love. (v. 14a)46

“All” have (potentially) died to the sinful, self-centered drives that pervert their
lives and invite God’s wrath, and Paul calls all people, Jew and Greek, slave
and free, male and female, to receive this liberating gift and experience the
liberation fully in their reciprocal offering of themselves to Christ who, by the
Spirit, can live in and through them a life that invites God’s pleasure and ap-
In connection with this statement, Paul warns against receiving God’s grace
“in vain” (2 Cor 6:1): God’s favor in Christ only begins with the death of Jesus
on behalf of those who receive this gift; it does not achieve its end until Christ
has come alive in the believer, transforming his or her life into a God-centered,
other-centered life of righteousness, giving to the Creator as the Creator mer-
its, living before the Creator as pleases the Creator. The obligation to respond is
not an obligation to match the gift; it is an obligation to allow God’s gift to have
its full effect by allowing the love of Christ to change one’s own orientation to
Paul’s convictions concerning human obligation to the divine Benefactor
also emerge clearly in Romans. A failure of gratitude lies at the heart of every
human ill:

God’s anger is revealed from heaven upon every act of impiety and in-
justice enacted by human beings who suppress the truth with injus-
tice . . . because, though knowing [the existence of] God, they neither
brought God honor nor expressed gratitude, but rather they became
empty-headed in their reasoning and their uncomprehending hearts
were benighted. . . . [They] distorted the truth about God with a lie and

45 Barrett, Second Epistle, 169.

46 Furnish, II Corinthians, 328.
47 Thus rightly Oropeza, “The Expectation of Grace,” 220: “[B]elievers must relocate the
concept of obligation in terms of living for Christ’s sake, and they are to interpret it in
light of being controlled by God’s Spirit.” See also D.A. deSilva, Transformation: The Heart
of Paul’s Gospel (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014), 10-14, 38-43, 58-63.
Grace and Obligation in Paul and Seneca 171

they revered and served the created thing in place of the Creator who is
blessed forever. (Rom 1:18, 21, 25)

God’s existence and creative activity were on display throughout creation, to

be read and known by all (Rom 1:19-20; see also Wis 13:1, 5-9). Nevertheless,
rather than give the One God the return of gratitude that was his due for the
gift of existence, people denied that they had been benefitted by him and gave
the honor due God to idols.48 Dunn comments:

Paul is obviously thinking more in terms of thanksgiving as characteristic

of a whole life, as the appropriate response of one whose daily experi-
ence is shaped by the recognition that he [or she] stands in debt to God,
that his [or her] very life and experience of living is a gift from God. . . .
This failure to give God his due and to receive life as God’s gift is Paul’s
way of expressing the primal sin of humankind.49

God’s response of “anger” is the response of the slighted Benefactor (see Aris-
totle, Rhet. 2.2.8). It is the verbal cue that affront (refusal to honor) had been
offered on the part of the beneficiaries to the benefactor.50 An important pur-
pose and effect of Paul’s mission is the reversal of the general population’s

48 Craig Keener, Romans (NCCS; Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2009), 34, also regards this as
a case of “humanity abandoning gratitude toward God.” Engberg-Pedersen (“Gift-Giving
and Friendship,” 24) suggests that “Paul argues that human beings (that is, non-Jews)
should have grasped (1:20), praised, and given thanks to (1:21) God for his works in the
world ‘since the creation’ (1:20). However, in spite of the fact that Paul does speak in
1:21 of ‘giving thanks’ to God (even using the very term for gratiam referre: εὐχαρίζεσθαι),
what he emphasizes in 1:20 about God’s creation of the world is not so much God’s gift
as his ‘power’ (δύναμις) and ‘divine majesty’ (θειότης). Correspondingly, what was missing
in human beings is not so much the proper reaction to a gift but giving God ‘honor’
(δοξάζειν, 1:21, 23).” I think, however, that the obligation of gratitude (and thus honoring
God in gratitude for the gift of life itself and the sustaining bounty of creation) would
be sufficiently embedded in both Gentile and Jewish culture for Paul to assume this.
It is inherent in Paul’s reference to God as “Creator” (1:25) and in the denial of God’s
expectation of “thanks/acknowledgement as giver” (1:21).
49 J.D.G. Dunn, Romans 1-8 (WBC; Waco, TX: Word, 1988), 59. He helpfully refers readers also
to 4 Ezra 8.60: “those who were created . . . have been ungrateful to him who prepared life
for them now.”
50 See also Col 3:5, where God’s wrath falls upon the disobedient, revealing an underlying as-
sumption of a just claim to obedience on the part of vastly inferior parties whom one has
benefitted (again, here, with the very gift of existence). Philo may indeed have suggested
that all creation is to respond to the Creator’s benefits with thanksgiving and praise, as
172 deSilva

ungrateful, insulting behavior (denying their Creator his due acknowledge-

ment) in favor of awakening them to God’s gifts and their reciprocal obliga-
tions (1 Thess 1:9).
This debt of gratitude for the gift of life itself does not go away. The ques-
tion becomes, how does God bring it about that human beings receive and
respond to God’s gift of life appropriately? The very fact that God would invest
himself in this question is a further act of generous favor: wrath – the sat-
isfaction of God’s slighted honor as the unrequited Benefactor – would have
been the expected and fully justified response, with no way out or way back
provided.51 God’s love shown in Christ is the further act of grace that has the
power to quicken gratitude even in the soil of the ingrate’s heart (see Seneca,
Ben. 7.31.1-7.32.1). Paul expects, and suggests rather plainly that God expects,
this second act of χάρις to produce rather different results from the first acts of
χάρις manifested in creation and the preservation of life. God’s forbearance is
intended to lead to repentance (Rom 2:4); God’s gift of the life of his Son on
behalf of human beings is intended to lead these human beings into changed
lives such that they no longer use their created bodies to multiply sin (affronts
against the Creator) but to do what is righteous (in line with the values and
purposes of the Creator; 6:1-23). Now the response of the redeemed to his or
her Redeemer will bring him or her also in line with the response of the cre-
ated to their Creator, “one whose daily experience is shaped by the recognition
that he [or she] stands in debt to God.”52

mortals have no power to render anything else in return (Harrison, Paul’s Language of
Grace, 129), but Paul does suggest other components of our response to God’s generous
acts in creation and redemption, particularly a change in life orientation to serve God
rather than “the flesh” or “sin.”
51 “Surely beneficiaries have to respond worthily to their benefactor – or admit their inabil-
ity to do so – if munificence was to be extended and maintained? Yet God had responded
in an unprecedented way to His dishonoring as the cosmic and covenantal Benefactor.
Instead of avenging His honor, He had demonstrated forbearance and extended χάρις to
the ungrateful in His crucified Son” (Harrison, Paul’s Language of Grace, 219).
52 Dunn, Romans 1-8, 59. Engberg-Pedersen (“Gift-Giving and Friendship,” 28) concludes
that the Christ-event “shows that God staged his relationship with human beings pre-
cisely in the form of a gift in order to achieve his own aims.” As God’s dealings with
humanity in Rom 1:18-32, 2:23-24, and 8:3-4 suggest, these aims include an interest in
God’s creatures honoring God and doing the divine will. Human responses of faithful-
ness (πίστις) and love are means of reciprocating the gift and thus fulfilling the divine
will. The magnificent love and grace of God in the giving of Christ expects a response, so
much that no one “acts rightly, then, if he does not respond to that act in kind. . . . Any
other response will amount to annulling God’s gift” (“Gift-Giving and Friendship,” 41). See
Grace and Obligation in Paul and Seneca 173

Paul is careful to stress that, though God’s act in Christ is performed on

behalf of all people, it is also performed on behalf of each person. Paul’s em-
phasis on God’s love is important in this regard as a signal of God’s personal
investment in each (potential) recipient of his favor.53

One will scarcely die on behalf of a just person (for on behalf of a good
person someone might indeed dare to die), but God demonstrates his
love for us because, while we were still sinners, Christ died on our behalf.
(Rom 5:7-8)

The personal character of this love is experienced by means of the activity

of the Holy Spirit in the believers’ lives: “God’s love has been poured out into
hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Rom 5:5).
Seneca had written that the person who was included in a general benefit,
for example, a grant of citizenship to all Gauls or an exemption from taxa-
tion for all Spaniards, would not feel particularly indebted to the giver beyond
being part of a group that had benefited.

“The emperor,” he says, “had no thought of me at the time when he bene-

fited us all; he did not desire to give citizenship to me personally, nor did
he direct his attention to me; so why should I feel indebted to one who
did not put me before himself when he was thinking of doing what he
did?” (Ben. 6.19.2-4)

A gift given to an entire population does not make the individual a personal
debtor, since “an act that lays me under obligation must have been done
because of me” (Ben. 6.19.5). “The feeling of indebtedness presupposes that
the gift has been given to me personally” (Ben. 6.18.2).54 Paul does not allow
God’s benefits in Christ to be such “general” benefits without also being in-
tensely personal benefits. The Christ “who loved us” (Gal 1:4) is also the Christ
“who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:19-20), as well as each among

also Oropeza, “The Expectation of Grace,” 220: “Now that God has granted them Christ
and salvation, believers must assent to the Spirit’s work in their bodies both collectively
and individually.”
53 Engberg-Pedersen, “Gift-Giving and Friendship,” 27.
54 See also Joubert, Paul as Benefactor, 51: “For a service to qualify as a benefit it must have
been undertaken because of a specific individual, and not just bestowed on him as one
of the crowd.”
174 deSilva

Paul’s audience, binding each to himself in a personal relationship of reci-

Later in Romans 8, Paul draws the conclusion that, on the basis of Christ’s
dying and rising on our behalf and, thus, our dying with him to one kind of life
and rising with him to another kind of life, “we are debtors (ὀφειλέται ἐσμέν).”
Robert Jewett observes that Paul “always employs this term as a predicate nom-
inative with the verb εἰμί (‘to be’), reflecting a social status of having received
patronage and being required to render reciprocal service.”56 The full clause
in which it appears is frequently translated, particularly in markedly conser-
vative translations, as “We are not indebted to the flesh” (HCSB, GW, TLB, NLT,
The Voice). It is, however, translated more accurately (note the position of the
negating adverb: ὀφειλέται ἐσμὲν οὐ τῇ σαρκὶ), “we are indebted, not to the flesh”
(as in the KJV, RSV, NRSV, ESV, GNT). The NIV is particularly strong: “we have an
obligation – but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it” (similarly, CEB). The
syntax of a positive statement of obligation followed by a negation of one pos-
sible creditor for this obligation suggests that there is a positive statement of
the actual creditor forthcoming. Paul does not finish this sentence in this way,
since he is moved to expand on the consequences of “living according to the
flesh” in 8:13a: “for if you live in line with your self-serving impulses (“flesh”),
you are going to die.” The introduction of the alternative in 8:13b (“but if by
means of the Spirit you put the deeds of the body to death, you will live”),
however, invites us to complete Paul’s thought thus: “we are indebted, not to
the flesh to live in line with the flesh, but to the Spirit to live in line with the
Spirit.” For, indeed, it is those who are guided by the Spirit who are truly God’s
children (8:14).
Paul’s framing of the relationship of the redeemed with the Divine in terms
of God’s beneficence and the obligation to respond gratefully, although objec-

55 Troels Engberg-Pedersen (“Gift-Giving and Friendship,” 41) perceptively adds: “With hu-
man beings meeting God’s love with a love of their own in a mutual, interlocking pattern,
there is nothing they may wish to do other than fulfilling God’s will. Everything is ready,
therefore, to make them return God’s gift (compare the idea in Seneca of beneficium red-
dere) by actually fulfilling his will. In this way, by God’s use of the gift-giving system, the
original purpose of the covenant is achieved.”
56 Robert Jewett, Romans (Hermeneia; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007), 493, adding that “com-
mentators consistently overlook this social background in interpreting v.12.” He refers
readers further to Mark Reasoner, The Strong and the Weak. Romans 14.1-15.13 in Context
(SNTSMS 103; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 176-86.
Grace and Obligation in Paul and Seneca 175

tionable to some on theological grounds,57 is actually quite moderate in com-

parison with another prominent framing of this relationship. This alternative
frame appears between his expressions of human failure to return gratitude
and God’s loving favor nevertheless (Romans 1 and 5) and his expressions of
our obligation now to live no longer to gratify our self-centered impulses but
to allow the Spirit to lead – the metaphor of slaves of one master being pur-
chased to become slaves of a new master, still much to the benefit of the slaves
in question.58 Even though Paul admits that the slavery metaphor arises from
his felt need to “speak in human terms” (Rom 6:19), it nevertheless conveys un-
ambiguously the nature of the obligation and response expected on the part
of those redeemed from another kind of slavery that led to death (both natural
death and death in a more ultimate sense).
Human sin (the failure to live out a response of obedient gratitude to their
Creator) was followed by the further generous acts of God, extending the
means of reconciliation and restoration to a grace-relationship. Continuing
to live for one’s own ends, however, is not a feasible response to grace: “Are we
to persist in sin in order that favor may be multiplied further? Certainly not!”
(Rom 6:1); “Shall we keep on sinning because we are not under law but under
favor? Certainly not!” (Rom 6:15). Being “under grace” and having experienced
Christ’s deliverance from slavery to sin mean investing ourselves fully in a re-
ciprocal God-ward act: “Don’t offer your life-in-the-body to sin as a vehicle for
unjust action, but offer yourself to God as people now living from among the
dead and offer your life-in-the-body to God as a vehicle for just action” (Rom

57 For example, Jason Whitlark objects that “reciprocity transforms grace into debt” (“En-
abling χάρις: Transformation of the Convention of Reciprocity by Philo and in Ephesians,”
Perspectives in Religious Studies 30 [2003]: 325-357, esp. 356) and cautions that introduc-
ing reciprocity as “the dynamic upon which salvation is based” results in a soteriological
scheme of “covenantal nomism or a synergistic semi-Pelagianism” (“Enabling χάρις,” 341).
The specter of semi-Pelagianism and other theological convictions, however, here stand
in the way of actually hearing Paul and acknowledging the more complex relationship
between grace, reciprocity, generous response, and debt that comes into play in discus-
sions of gratitude contemporary with Paul.
58 On Paul’s use of slavery metaphors in Romans 6, see the masterful study in John By-
ron, Slavery Metaphors in Early Judaism and Pauline Christianity (WUNT 2/162; Tü bin-
gen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003), 207-19. The grace-gratitude paradigm is also taken further to
redemption-ownership in 1 Cor 6:19-20: “You don’t belong to yourselves, for you were pur-
chased [ἠγοράσθητε] for a price: bring honor to God, then, with your body.” This is clearly
an underlying paradigm for Paul, underscoring obligation to live for the redeemer/bene-
factor, with the latter becoming actually the far gentler metaphor.
176 deSilva

6:13). The person who has previously failed to respond to God’s creative gift is
now, by virtue of encountering and receiving God’s love in Christ, awakened to
gratitude and its obligations and, thereby, positioned to give God his due – to
act justly rather than unjustly.59 Paul is clear that one’s failure to allow God’s
favor thus to re-orient him or her means that he or she remains Sin’s slave and
has only death to which to look forward: “Don’t you know that . . . you are
slaves of the entity whom you actually obey, whether you serve as Sin’s slaves,
with the result that you die, or Obedience’s slaves, with the result that you live
justly?” (Rom 6:16).
“Eternal life” remains God’s gift (Rom 6:23) – but to those whose lives reflect
their reception and response to his beneficent creating and redeeming inter-
ventions, or, in Paul’s more crass metaphor, to those who have indeed lived
as God’s slaves, putting their lives at his disposal rather than at the disposal
of their own sinful, self-centered, self-gratifying impulses (Rom 6:20-22). God’s
gift will result in human acknowledgment of the Creator-Redeemer and in
transformed lives characterized by just action as gratitude, the experience of
divine love, and the Holy Spirit work upon the human heart.60

5 Conclusion: Paul, “Good News,” and the Obligation of Gratitude

It remains true that “the χάρις of Christ stands in opposition to the do ut des
mentality of the Graeco-Roman world” (though Seneca notably also stands
against such a mentality) and that “to think otherwise is to return to justifica-

59 “Now that they are ‘under grace,’ the faithful in Christ are under obligation, ‘to which Paul
calls for willing assent to serve the purposes of grace by yielding their bodies as [spiritual]
weapons employed by the God and Father of Jesus Christ, serving their fellows in righ-
teousness’” (Oropeza, “The Expectation of Grace,” 220, quoting Robert Jewett, Romans,
412; see also the analysis of Paul’s metaphor of the Christians as obligated beneficiaries in
Rom 6:12-23 in Harrison, Paul’s Language of Grace, 234-42).
60 Other passages that could profitably be analyzed from this vantage point include Paul’s
warnings in regard to responding properly to God’s favor in Gal 4:8-11; 5:1-4; the thanksgiv-
ing and benediction sections in each of Paul’s letters (1 Cor 1:4-7; 2 Cor 1:3-7; 2:14-16; Phil
1:3-5; Col 1:3-5a; 1 Thess 1:2-3; 3:9-10; Phlm 4-5); exhortations to congregations to dwell on
God’s favors by engaging in ongoing thanksgiving (Col 2:6-7; 3:16-17; 4:2; 1 Thess 5:16-18);
and Paul’s understanding of God’s provision as supplying Christians with the means to
accomplish God’s ends, as especially in 2 Cor 9:8-15 (where dedit ut dare possumus). A par-
ticularly helpful study in regard to the last of these texts is Stephan Joubert, “Religious
reciprocity in 2 Corinthians 9:6-15: Generosity and gratitude as legitimate responses to
the χάρις τοῦ θεοῦ,” Neotestamentica 33.1 (1999): 79-90.
Grace and Obligation in Paul and Seneca 177

tion by works . . . and to reverse the direction of our indebtedness to God.”61

Paul is clear that no human being, qua creature, can indebt God with a view
to leveraging future favors: “Who has anticipated God in giving a gift, so that
it will be repaid to him or her?” (Rom 11:35). The rationale is telling: “Because
all things are from him and through his agency and directed unto him” (Rom
11:36), an obvious formula about creation, and thus indebtedness to God –
specifically, indebtedness to give back to God – as the starting point for every
created being.62
Nevertheless, Paul does advocate very strongly a do quia dedisti mentality
which is entirely in keeping with Greco-Roman convictions about the absolute
necessity of meeting favor with favor, of recipients of favors responding to their
benefactors and friends with equal commitment and investment. This is true
for him both in regard to human relationships and relationships between hu-
man beings and the divine.63 Reciprocity demands that the recipients of God’s
favor, particularly as shown in Christ, honor their Creator-Redeemer with their
speech, hearts, and actions subsequent to receiving grace, that they at last live
“toward” and “for” the Giver. This is not, by any stretch, a return to “salvation
by works,” but it does promote “salvation as the result of God’s gracious action
having its full effect in and upon the recipients of God’s favor,” where that ef-
fect includes the response of re-oriented lives that God’s favor naturally and
necessarily provokes where it is well received.
Where transactional understandings of God’s grace (an isolated act that
transfers something irrevocably to me on the basis of “belief”) trump dynamic,
relational understandings of grace, theologians are wrenching Paul and his
message out of the social, ethical, and lived contexts in which Paul was shaped
and his gospel formulated, preached, and heard. There is an almost automatic
response on the part of many Christian exegetes and theologians to demon-
strate that Paul or some other New Testament author is in some way different
from and, therefore, “better than” the classical authors with whom he is be-
ing compared. In regard to the obligation of gratitude, however, Paul would
rather challenge all Christian disciples, in their response to the overwhelming
favor of God in Jesus the Messiah, to live up at least to the measure of virtue

61 Harrison, Paul’s Language of Grace, 350.

62 See also Col 1:16: “All things were created through him and unto him.”
63 Theologians go astray when they seek to answer the question “What will God do if we
don’t do the right and honorable thing within this relationship?” and formulate their
conclusions about divine grace and human response on the basis of their answers. Paul
is not interested in asking this question, only in urging his hearers: “Do the right and
honorable thing within this relationship!”
178 deSilva

promoted by classical authors. Theology that excuses us for doing less does not
serve God’s purposes for the relationship God has sought to renew and redeem
in his giving.
(Dis)correspondence of Paul and Seneca on Slavery
Timothy Brookins

It is especially fitting, in comparing Paul and Seneca, for us to include a chapter

assessing their views on slavery. One of them a representative of early Chris-
tianity, the other of Roman Stoicism, Paul and Seneca represent ways of think-
ing that Enlightenment humanist scholarship long considered responsible for
the erosion of slavery as an institution.
The comparison between Paul and Seneca on slavery is equally fitting, how-
ever, in that both of them have been charged, since ancient times, with per-
sonal inconsistency, whether within their own patterns of thought, or else be-
tween their personal ideals on the one hand and their personal practices on
the other.1
More recent assessments of ancient slavery have helped accentuate the por-
trait of these two men as inconsistent. Since the 1980’s, a growing stream of
scholarship has maintained that ancient Christianity and Stoicism, far from
undermining slavery, actually represented the same acquiescence toward if
not outright support for its continuance that was found exhibited in the
broader culture.2 In modern times, interpreters have pointed to inconsisten-

1 On Seneca’s “inconsistencies,” including references in the primary sources, see Miriam T.

Griffin, Seneca: A Man in Politics (Clarendon: Oxford University Press, 1976), esp. 1-26. On
Paul’s “inconsistencies,” see, e.g., Porphyry, Against the Christians (3rd c.); and an anonymous
text from a figure who calls himself “the Hellene” (4th c.).
2 Especially since Moses Finley, Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology (New York: Viking Press,
1980). More recently, Keith Bradley, “Seneca and Slavery,” Classica et Mediaevalia 37 (1986):
161-72; “Seneca and Slavery,” in Seneca (ed. John G. Fitch; Oxford Readings in Classical Stud-
ies; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 335-47; Slaves and Masters in the Roman Empire:
A Study in Social Control (Brussels: Collection Latomus, 1984); Slavery and Rebellion in the
Roman World, 140 BC - 70 BC (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989); Slavery and So-
ciety at Rome (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994); “Resisting Slavery at Rome,” in
The Cambridge World History of Slavery: The Ancient Mediterranean World (ed. Keith Bradley
and Paul Cartledge; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 62-84; J. Albert Harrill,
Slaves in the New Testament: Literary, Social, and Moral Dimensions (Philadelphia: Fortress
Press, 2006); idem, The Manumission of Slaves in Early Christianity (HUT 32; Tübingen: Mohr
Siebeck, 1995). For a summary of recent scholarship, see John Byron, Recent Research on Paul
and Slavery (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 2008).

© Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2017 | DOI 10.1163/9789004341364 010

180 Brookins

cies between the allegedly egalitarian ideals of Paul and Seneca, and their fail-
ure to call for an end to slavery.3
I hope to put the problem in fresh perspective here by exploring their views
from a sociological angle. The essay will unfold in three parts. To begin, I pro-
vide a brief sketch of slavery under the Roman Empire; second, I undertake
a survey of relevant texts from Paul’s and Seneca’s writings;4 finally, I exam-
ine their views through the sociological theories of Peter Berger and Thomas

1 Slavery in the Roman Empire

Slavery in the Roman Empire, like slavery in the New World between the six-
teenth and nineteenth centuries, was chattel slavery: slaves constituted per-
sonal property, over whom owners exercised complete legal and physical mas-
tery (dominium), including even the power of life and death. But unlike slav-
ery in the New World, slavery under the Roman Empire was never grounded
in racial identity. Many slaves were captives of war. Others entered slavery
through piracy, trade, or self-sale. Ultimately, the bulk of the slave popula-
tion was supplied through natural reproduction (the child of a slave, as traced
through the mother, inherited the legal status of a slave).6

3 Keith Bradley remarks that Seneca’s philosophical views “did not lead to what now seems
the ultimately logical conclusion: a call for an end to slavery” (“Seneca and Slavery,” 339; my
italics). Incidentally, Dale Martin draws precisely the same conclusion on Paul: “though Paul
attempts a theological undermining of the difference between master and slave, he never
pursues the logical end of rejecting the actual social structure of slavery” (Slavery as Salvation
[New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990], 142; my italics; cf. P. Veyne, The Life of a Stoic [trans.
D. Sullivan; New York/London, 2003], 138).
4 For my comments on Paul, I limit myself to the nine letters to churches traditionally at-
tributed to him, plus his letter to Philemon. For Seneca, I focus on the Moral Essays, a col-
lection of dialogues written over a period of more than twenty years, and the Moral Epistles,
written almost undoubtedly within the last two or three years of his life. For Seneca, just
as for Paul, dating is notoriously difficult, and it is not always possible to distinguish be-
tween development in thought over time and personal inconsistency. For a recent attempt
at dating Seneca’s writings, integrating the insights of earlier studies, see C.W. Marshall, “The
Works of Seneca the Younger and Their Dates,” in Brill’s Companion to Seneca: Philosopher
and Dramatist (Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2014), 33-44.
5 Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckman, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the
Sociology of Knowledge (Garden City: Doubleday, 1966).
6 According to Walter Scheidel, “[N]atural reproduction made a greater contribution to the
Roman slave supply than child exposure, warfare, and the slave trade taken together and was
(Dis)correspondence of Paul and Seneca on Slavery 181

Altogether slaves comprised some ten to twenty-five percent of society.7

These could vary greatly in quality of life – from the publicly owned slaves
at the top; down to the privately owned but skilled, educated, or enterprising
slaves fortunate enough to serve understanding masters; and then down, fi-
nally, to the common household slaves, agricultural slaves, and most wretched
of all, those who worked the mines or rowed the galleys (a virtual death sen-
Some of the leading voices in recent scholarship have focused on the less
fortunate, highlighting the darker aspects of slave experience: severe verbal
abuse, cruel bodily torture, and full sexual exploitation, among other woes.8
Seneca’s forty-seventh epistle, discussed below, provides a vivid picture of
some of the hardships to which slaves were commonly subjected. Non-elite
sources contribute much additional color to our understanding of slaves’ mis-
Others remind us that there was a brighter side, nevertheless, which went
a long way in mitigating the plight of slavery: the right to hold property and
bear children, the prospect of a decent education, and the high likelihood of
manumission by the age of thirty.9 Dale Martin, moreover, giving considera-
tion to the full range of slave experiences, has shown that the state of slavery

in all probability several times as important as any other single source” (“Quantifying the
Sources of Slaves in the Early Roman Empire,” JRS 87 [1997]: 157-69, esp. 156).
7 Walter Scheidel has shown that older estimates, which posit a slave:free ratio of 1:3, are wildly
inflated. In his estimate, the servile population under the early Roman Empire comprised
only about 10% of the total population, or 6 out of 60 million across Italy and the provinces
(“Quantifying the Sources of Slaves in the Early Roman Empire,” 158). Italy, however, supplied
2 or 3 of these 6 million (Scheidel, “Quantifying the Sources of Slaves,” 158). More recently,
Scheidel has estimated that the slave population comprised between 15% and 25% of people
in Roman Italy, and between 5% and 15% of those in the rest of the Roman Empire (“Slav-
ery,” in The Cambridge Companion to the Roman Economy [ed. Walter Scheidel; Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2012], 91-92). Philip Kay estimates that in Late Republican Italy
slaves made up about 20-25% of the total population (Rome’s Economic Revolution [Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 2014]: 181-82).
8 See n1, in response especially to Joseph Vogt and scholarship prior to the 1960’s (Sklaverei und
Humanität. Studien zur antiken Sklaverei und ihrer Erforschung [Historia-Einzelschriften 8;
Wiesbaden: Steiner, 1965]). Sexual exploitation is depicted frequently in the ancient sources:
e.g., Seneca the Elder, Contr. 4.pr.10; Seneca, Ep. 47.7; Petronius, Satyricon 75.11; Horace, Sat.
9 See Scott Bartchy, “Response to Keith Bradley’s Scholarship on Slavery,” BibInt 21 (2013):
524-32; and on manumission: Bartchy, Mallon Chresai, 82-87. P.D. Garnsey chronicles evi-
dence that there was wide variation in slaves’ living conditions (“Slavery Eased,” in Ideas of
Slavery from Aristotle to Augustine [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996], 87-101).
182 Brookins

in itself was actually, from a wider perspective, status-ambiguous – the worst

of all conditions for some, but an opportunity for substantial upward mobility
for others.10 Evidence from literary sources can be found on both sides (cf. Dio
Chrysostom, Or. 14.1; Epictetus, Diatr. 4.1.36-37).
Whatever their lot, slaves were fixtures of everyday life in antiquity, both
public and private. We know that both Paul and Seneca kept close associations
with them. Seneca, as a wealthy aristocrat,11 owned a large retinue of slaves,
in the ranks of which he included no less than a cook, baker, masseur, bath
attendant, personal trainer, major-domos, doubtless among many others.12 We
also have ample evidence that Paul’s churches contained slaves. References in
his letters to “the household of x” (e.g., “Aristobulus,” Rom 16:10; “Narcissus,”
Rom 16:11) or “the people of y” (e.g., “Chloe,” 1 Cor 1:11) imply the presence
of slaves. In Phil 4:22, Paul mentions “the household of Caesar,” although these
people could be freed-persons or people of higher station. The traditional view
that Philemon was a slave-owner continues to prevail. Many of the church
members that Paul mentions by name had slave names.13 There is evidence
that some slaves converted to Christ along with their masters (cf. 1 Cor 1:16;
16:15), and others independently of them (cf. 1 Cor 7:10-16, 20-24). More than
once Paul addresses slaves directly (1 Cor 7:21; Col 3:22-25; Eph 6:5-9).
Neither Paul nor Seneca, then, lived at any distance from the realities of
slavery. The institution was deeply embedded in the fabric of society – so
deeply that neither of them was able to avoid discussing it in their writings.

2 Paul and Seneca on Slavery

2.1 Seneca on Slavery

For Seneca, like all those who identified with the Stoic school of philosophy,
social relations were integrally tied to cosmology. Therefore in order to under-
stand Seneca’s views on slavery, one first has to understand his Stoic-oriented

10 Martin, Slavery as Salvation.

11 He was born of a wealthy equestrian family in Cordoba, Spain, between approximately
4-1 B.C.E., and after moving to Rome in boyhood, received a first-class education there,
later becoming quaestor, praetor, and finally chief advisor to the emperor Nero.
12 So Bradley, “Seneca and Slavery,” 346; citing Ep. 83.4; 123.1-2, 4.
13 In fact, Peter Lampe has shown that Prisca and Aquila are among the few individuals
listed in Rom 16 whose names do not suggest slave origins (Christians at Rome during the
First Two Centuries [London: Continuum, 2006], 182).
(Dis)correspondence of Paul and Seneca on Slavery 183

According to Stoicism, God was in all, and all was God (Ep. 92.30). All crea-
tures of the “human race” (humanum genus), among all living things, shared
in the divine faculty of reason (ratio; Ep. 76.9-10; 92.27-28), thus possessing a
common capacity for virtue, irrespective of his or her rank or social station
(Ep. 50.9; 104.23; 124.7). Moreover, all people came from the same stock: God
was the father of all (Ben. 4.8.1; Ep. 44.1-2; 47.10; 95.52; 110.10). By Nature (= God)
people were joined together into a “society” (societas), a state of natural con-
nectivity that demanded an exercise of “mutual love” and service toward the
“common benefit” (cf. Ira 2.31.7-8; 3.5.6; Vit. beat. 20.3; Clem. 1.3.2; Ot. 3.5). Thus
humans were like a body, in which the parts, though varied, worked together
interdependently to preserve the health and harmony of the whole organism
(Ira 2.31.6-8; cf. Clem. 1.3.5-5.1; 1.4.1-3; 1.13.4; 2.2.1), or “like a stone arch, which
would collapse if the stones did not mutually support each other” (Ep. 95.53).
Implicit within this framework was a robust egalitarian substructure: all
people proceed from the same source, all stand on the same plane, sharing
equality by their very nature as members of the human race.
Despite the obvious tension that existed between these egalitarian prin-
ciples and the social reality of slavery endemic to Seneca’s lived experience,
in his comments on slavery Seneca remained admirably faithful to the wider
Stoic framework. He deplored the abusive treatment that slaves suffered under
their masters: that they were forbidden, on pain of beatings, even from mov-
ing their lips, from coughing, sneezing, or hiccupping; that they were treated
like beasts (Ep. 47.3, 5, 19; Clem. 1.18.2; 1.25.1). Indeed, he said, slaves too are
“people” (homines; Ep. 47.1; Ben. 3.28.1-2), and as such are worthy of “humane”
treatment (Ep. 47.5, 19; Clem. 1.18.2; 1.25.1). Moreover, as people they share the
same capacity for virtue as any other people (Polyb. 17.2; Ep. 66.22). The slave
is born from the same divine stock as his master, and is “smiled upon by the
same skies,” and equally “breathes, lives, and dies” (Ep. 47.10). Accordingly, the
virtuous soul “may descend into a Roman knight just as well as into a freed-
man’s son or a slave” (Ep. 33.11; 44.5). In the same regard, “Philosophy did not
find Plato already a nobleman; it made him one” (Ep. 44.3). Seneca also makes
note of Plato’s remark that pedigree is, for any and everyone, mixed: “Every
king springs from a race of slaves, and every slave has had kings among his an-
cestors” (Ep. 44.3-4). Seneca even allows slaves to be counted among the ranks
of “comrades” (contubernales) or “friends” (amici) to their masters (Ep. 47.1, 16;
Ben. 3.21.1; but see Ep. 107.1); we shall return to this point below.
As is evident from these remarks, the primary matrix for Seneca’s views on
slavery seems to have been the Stoic doctrine that all people share a common
nature. It is worth adding, however, that Seneca might also have challenged
slavery from a different angle, namely, from the Stoic view that the whole uni-
184 Brookins

verse constitutes “common space.” The Stoics urged people not to say that
they were born in this or that “corner” of the universe, but to consider the
whole world their country (Ep. 28.4-5), for all were citizens, as it were, of a sin-
gle world-state (Herc. Ot. 4.1). Actually, Seneca was willing to go even farther
than this. In more than one place he refers to the world-state idea as a way of
grounding the notion that the whole universe was common property. Indeed,
he affirms that, in the Golden Age, men shared nature in a partnership (Ep.
90.38). Elsewhere, he even condemns the possession of private property, on
the grounds that the world belongs to all mankind (Ep. 88.12). Seneca might
have extended this principle, then, to the notion that no human – and espe-
cially no human – could be rightfully kept as property.
Despite this wider framework, at no point did Seneca advocate a complete
leveling of master and slave, much less total abolishment of the institution of
slavery. In Ep. 47, both of these issues bubble beneath the surface. It is telling
there that while Seneca is able to invoke the Golden Rule as a standard of
conduct, his version of the rule is mapped onto a master-slave social schema,
asking masters and slaves to empathize from within the existing structures,
not to imagine themselves, as it were, outside of them. He says to masters:
“It is just as possible for you to see in him a free-born man as for him to see
in you a slave” (Ep. 47.10). For Seneca this principle holds true not because
he imagines interpersonal relations operating, as it were, outside of the cur-
rent social order or independently of institutionalized order altogether, but
because the master’s or the slave’s actual fortunes could conceivably change:
masters might become slaves, and slaves masters. In the meantime, the Golden
Rule applies within the standing hierarchy. As he says, “Treat your inferiors as
you would be treated by your betters” (cf. inferiore, superiorem; Ep. 47.11).14
At the letter’s closing, the question of abolition, which Seneca apparently
felt it impossible to repress any longer, finally boils to the surface:

Some may maintain that I am now offering the liberty-cap to slaves in

general and toppling down lords from their high estate, because I bid
slaves respect [colant] their masters instead of fearing [timeant] them.

14 Interestingly, Hierocles, a slightly later Stoic contemporary, also uses the Golden Rule
with reference to masters and slaves, but keeps the rule in purer form: “a person would
treat a slave well, if he considered how he would think the other should behave toward
himself, if the other were the master and he himself the slave” (Ilaria Ramelli, Hierocles the
Stoic: Elements of Ethics, Fragments, and Excerpts [trans. David Konstan; SBLWGRW 28;
Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2009], 87).
(Dis)correspondence of Paul and Seneca on Slavery 185

They say: “This is what he plainly means: slaves are to pay respect as if
they were clients or early-morning callers!” (Ep. 47.18 [LCL, Gummere])

That Seneca felt himself induced to raise this issue here reveals his full con-
sciousness that advocacy of abolition was likely to be taken as the natural con-
clusion to his views. Moreover, the fact that he addresses the question head on
here means that we do not have to resort to arguments from silence to answer
the question that everyone in our day seems to want to know from him: did
his Stoic principles stir him to favor the abolition of slavery as a commendable
course of action?
He answers obliquely, but clearly in the negative: “Anyone who holds this
opinion forgets that what is enough for a god cannot be too little for a master.
Respect means love, and love and fear cannot be mingled” (Hoc qui dixerit,
oblivescetur id dominis parum non esse, quod deo sat est. Qui colitur, et amatur;
non potest amor cum timore misceri). “Friendship” (47.16) between masters and
slaves, in other words, need not require social equality. Rather, Seneca has in-
tended to say only that slaves ought to be able to face their masters without
fear, just as we as people ought to face God.15
The hierarchy within which Seneca seems to be working here merits further
explanation. He consistently affirms the Stoic view of the hierarchy of nature:
gods first, followed by humans, then irrational creatures, and last of all plants
(Ben. 2.29.3; Ep. 113.17). Man, he acknowledges, is “second” to the gods (Ben.
7.2.2; Ep. 76.9; 92.7; 120.14). Even so, because man has a part of God within
him (Ep. 120.14), nature has equipped him to rise equal to God (Ep. 31.9-10;
41.4; 48.12; 59.14; 73.16). The wise man of all people truly rivals God (Ep. 73.12;
92.29), being inferior only in that he is mortal (Ep. 53.11; 73.13; Prov. 1.5; 6.6),
and indeed, he even surpasses God, because he was at a disadvantage by his
nature as a man (Ep. 53.11; 92.28). In short: “a good man differs from God in the
element of time only” (Prov. 1.5).
Then does Seneca’s conclusion to Ep. 47 imply an utterly flat order? That
is, may we conclude from Seneca’s affirmation that humans are potentially
equal to God, that he imagines masters and slaves also as relating to each
other, not in fact hierarchically, but rather symmetrically? Close attention to his
argument suggests otherwise. The force of his argument in favor of the status

15 It should be mentioned here that “fear” (timor, formido, φόβος), for the Stoics, did not
mean what it meant for most Jews; it was not “reverence,” but rather an irrational “pas-
sion,” an abandonment of reason in surrender to the impulses of the emotions. See, e.g.,
SVF 3.391.
186 Brookins

quo here, i.e., his stance against offering “the liberty cap,” rests in a greater-to-
lesser proof as regards God in comparison with humanity: “what is enough for
a god cannot be too little for a master” (47.18). That is, a god is more deserving
of respect from man than a master is from a slave. God is higher, and man
lower. Hierarchy remains. To flatten this hierarchy out empties the greater-to-
lesser argument of all its force.
The fact that Seneca speaks in terms of “friendship” throughout the letter
(amici, “friends”; Ep. 47.1, 16) should not be taken as evidence against this in-
terpretation. In the Greco-Roman world, friendship language was often used
in contexts pertaining to asymmetrical patron-client relationships. It is true, of
course, that in Seneca’s view the truest kind of friendship was characterized
by symmetry and equality (Ep. 7.8; 35; Ben. 2.21.2; 7.12.2). Yet we find the same
tension in his views on friendship that we find in his remarks about God and
humans. Seneca was minded to reach out to the lowly – some because they
were “worthy” (dignus; Ep. 47.15), but others in order that they might become
worthy (ut sint; 47.15). Accordingly, Seneca often uses friendship language even
when he has asymmetrical relations in view – whether it is relations between
God and humans, patrons and clients, or masters and slaves. In the present
context, a patron-client schema is made manifest through the complaint of
the interlocutor: “slaves are to pay respect as if they were clients [clients] or
early-morning callers” (47.18 [LCL, Gummere]). Further passages pointing to
asymmetrical friendship relations can be found elsewhere in his writings.16
Ultimately, then, even while Seneca adheres to the Stoic doctrines of the
common nature and equal rights of all people, both well-born and slave, he
unequivocally repudiates the inference that might seem to follow from these
views – that these principles necessarily entail abolition – and in fact grounds
justification for the standing order in the very hierarchy of nature.
How, then, does Seneca reconcile these apparently opposing perspectives?
In this: that the state of slavery in itself diminishes neither the fullness of one’s
enfranchisement as a human being nor one’s capacity for attaining life’s high-
est goods. According to the Stoics, only virtue constitutes true “good” (bonum)
and only vice true “evil” (malum) (Const. 5.4-6.8; Ep. 74); all else is “indiffer-
ent” (indifferens/ἀδιάφορα) – life, health, and wealth, as well as their opposites,
death, disease, and poverty (Ep. 82.10). These indifferent things, which lay out-
side the realm of moral choice, are “no evils” (Ep. 76.11-14; 85.27); they are

16 Here it is the clientes of 47.18 that signals asymmetry. In Ep. 19.4, notice that some among
the clientes also rank as amici (11); see also, e.g., Ben. 6.33.3-4. For further discussion on
the question of friendship and asymmetry in Seneca, see Miriam T. Griffin, “De Beneficiis
and Roman Society,” JRS 93 (1993): 92-113, esp. 95-99.
(Dis)correspondence of Paul and Seneca on Slavery 187

mere “externals” (externa; Const. 5.5-6.1; Ep. 120.19), matters irrelevant either
to morality or one’s sense of personal happiness.
Indifferent things were not subject to one’s own control (Ep. 107.8-9), but
were doled out by “Fortune.”17 Yet, Seneca pointed out that, fickle as For-
tune was, circumstances could change: “‘But I have no master,’ you say. You
are still young; perhaps you will have one. Do you not know at what age
Hecuba entered captivity, or Croesus, or the mother of Darius, or Plato, or
Diogenes?” (Ep. 47.10-12; cf. 66.23; Tranq. 13.2-3). In the meantime, unfortunate
circumstances present themselves as opportunities for growth: ills are spurs to
goad your soul (Prov. 4.6); virtue is proven by testing (Const. 3.4); habituation
builds tolerance (Ep. 67.14-15); adversity makes you wiser (Ep. 94.74). Moreover,
even though the gods exercise providence over all things, they are “sometimes
uninterested in the individual” (interdum incuriosi singulorum; Ep. 95.50; cf.
In short, from the Stoic perspective, no external, nothing outside the realm
of moral choice, qualified as evil. Accordingly, the institution of slavery – or,
to speak in terms of persons, the slave’s condition – was not in itself a matter
of good and evil, but one of indifference. Goodness and badness had to be de-
fined relative to how the individual handled his/her circumstances (Ep. 66.5-6,
36; 88.10; 108.2). True riches were found in the soul; such goods nothing could
snatch away (Const. 5.4-7.1).
These principles played a crucial role in shaping Seneca’s views on slavery.
All people are slaves to something: one a slave to lust, another to greed, an-
other to ambition, and all to fear (Ep. 47.17); with slaves all are fellow-slaves
(Tranq. 10.3; Ep. 47.1). It benefits a person nothing to be freeborn, then, if one
is a slave to vice. The one who is “free” in the soul, however, is truly free, even if
a slave in the body (Ep. 73.8; 75.18).
It should be added here that Seneca, like the other late Stoics, had gone
quite some distance on the way toward a more radical brand of anthropologi-
cal dualism.18 Seneca had a habit of referring, rather dismissively, to the body
as the “paltry body” (corpusculum) (Ep. 24.16; 41.4; passim). He thought of it
as a burden, a prison to the soul, a chain that manacles one’s freedom (Ep.
65.15-17, 21, 22; 92.33). It is “not a thing to love,” but “to despise it is true free-
dom” (Ep. 92.33; 65.22). Burial is of no consequence (Ep. 92.34-35). The wise
man even “divorces” (diducit) body and soul (Ep. 78.10). In sum, while in the

17 Or “God” (often used interchangeably with “Fortune,” “Providence,” or “Reason”; on which

see Seneca, Marc. 8.3; Ben. 4.7.1-2; Helv. 8.3).
18 See A.A. Long, “Soul and Body in Stoicism,” Phronesis 27 (1982): 34-36.
188 Brookins

works of Seneca we have not yet arrived at the view that matter is “evil,” still in
comparison with earlier thinkers the value placed upon the body has clearly
become depressed in his writings. Moreover, the Stoic view that the mind was
autonomous, and indeed the true seat of the “self” (Marc. 25.1; Vit. beat. 8.2),
around which the body was wrapped as mere “clothing,” clarifies precisely the
grounds on which Stoics could treat the miseries of physical slavery as irrele-
vant next to one’s moral condition. What mattered was whether the mind was
enslaved or free.
The Stoics developed a whole department within their philosophical sys-
tem concerning conduct as it related to the indifferents, namely, the depart-
ment of “precepts” (praeceptiva pars). In distinction from “doctrines” (decreta,
placita, dogmata), which concerned general principles, “precepts” constituted
specific applications of doctrines to contingent social circumstances. To this
department belonged the so-called “household code” material, treating the
“duties” (officia/καθῆκα) of husbands toward wives, of fathers toward children,
and of masters toward slaves (Ep. 94-95; esp. 94.1).19 Discussions in this de-
partment work from within the existing social order, and accept its hierarchies
as a “given” feature of social reality. In this regard, we find Seneca registering
his assent to the commonplace that one should “render to each that which is
due” (Ep. 81.7). He accepts without objection the power of princes over their
subjects, of fathers over their children, of teachers over their pupils, and of tri-
bunes and centurions over their soldiers (Clem. 1.16.2).20 And as we have seen,
he apparently had no inclination to see the master-slave hierarchy dissolved.
In other Stoic sources, we have lengthier discussions of respective “duties,”
preserving traditional hierarchies from various spheres of society.21 What this
demonstrates is that Seneca, like the Stoics generally, saw no contradiction be-
tween the notion of human equality on the one hand, and the existence of

19 For discussion in the Greco-Roman literature: Plato, Leg. 1.627A; 6.771E-7.824C; Pol. 1.1252a
24-28; 1252b 9-10; 1.1252b 28-31; Dio Chrysostom, Fr. 4-9; Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Ant.
rom. 2.25.4-26.4; Seneca, Ep. 94; Hierocles, in Stobaeus, Anth. 4.67.23, 24 (toward siblings:
4.84.20; toward relatives: 4.84.23; spouses toward each other: 4.85.21; children toward par-
ents: 4.79.53). In the secondary literature, see M. Dibelius, An die Kolosser, Epheser, an
Philemon (3d ed.; HNT 12; Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1913), who emphasized the influence of
Stoic sources; also D. Lührmann, “Neutestamentliche Haustafeln und antike Ökonomie,”
NTS 27 (1980): 83-97; and David Balch, Let Wives Be Submissive (SBLMS 26; Chico: Society
of Biblical Literature Press, 1981).
20 In De Clementia, he also addresses the emperor Nero as a leader, likening him to the
“mind” that governs the “body” that is the state (1.3.5; 1.4.1-3).
21 For example, Hierocles, as preserved in Stobaeus, Anth. 3.39.34-35; 4.27.20.
(Dis)correspondence of Paul and Seneca on Slavery 189

asymmetrical social structures or even the possession of humans as chattel

on the other. The department of “precepts” represented the Stoics’ attempt to
integrate these apparently conflicting realities.
One other distinctive of later Stoic thinking, of which we find traces
in Seneca, might be mentioned here: the notion of individual personae
(πρόσωπα), in distinction from the common nature shared by all. Cicero, who
is indebted on this point to the Middle Stoic Panaetius, works with this idea in
Off. 1.93-151:

We must realize also that we are invested by Nature with two characters
[personae], as it were: one of these is universal, arising from the fact of
our being all alike endowed with reason and with that superiority which
lifts us above the brute. From this all morality and propriety are derived,
and upon it depends the rational method of ascertaining our duty. The
other character is the one that is assigned to individuals in particular.”
(Off. 1.107; my italics)

In places Seneca seems to be working within the same framework. He ac-

knowledges that some people are born with better qualities, others with worse
(Ep. 95.36). He also says that people have different “natural” temperaments
(natura), which ought to be taken into account in the process of education
(Ira 2.19.1-20.4). These naturae are “difficult to alter,” and “we may not change
the elements that were combined once for all at our birth [differently in each
person]” (Ira 2.20.2). Thus we find, at least in the later Stoics, the view that
alongside one’s “nature” as a human being, with respect to which all stand
as equals, each person also possesses an idiosyncratic nature, with respect to
which disposition and skills vary. Here the Stoic viewpoint no longer seems
quite so far from Aristotle’s idea that, although all are equally “human,” some
people are fitted “by nature” for freedom, and others for slavery (i.e., “natural
slavery”), although Seneca would doubtless have had some way of teasing out
the difference for us.
In closing this section, it should be noted that the Stoic understanding of
“social” relations has to be defined on at least two different levels. With respect
to nature (natura), people relate to each other in egalitarian terms: society is
a “human” society, a humana societas, a union of like fellows. But with respect
to the institutionalized order, social relations are determined by “duties,” dis-
tinctive sets of obligations defined relative to an individual’s position within
the existing hierarchies, hierarchies that are, in point of their existence, by no
means illegitimate or in violation of nature. For Seneca and the Stoics, this
double-existence was no proof of inconsistency in their system, but a natural
190 Brookins

corollary of their divorcement between two realms of existence: the realm of

the mind and moral choice, on the one hand, and the realm of the body and
things indifferent, on the other. Through this divorcement, moreover, “natural”
reality remained thoroughly embedded within social reality.

2.2 Paul on Slavery

Discussion of Paul’s views on slavery, like discussion of Seneca’s, cannot be lim-
ited to those passages that treat the topic explicitly. Rather discussion has to
be set within the context of the generative ideas that give shape to his thought
as a whole.
Of particular relevance is his notion of “participation in Christ.”22 For Paul,
this “participation,” shared by those “in Christ” (ἐν Χριστῷ ), entails both a
participation in God/Christ/Spirit and a participation of believers in each
other. In metaphorical terms, these believers-in-Christ constitute (as in Stoic
thought) a single “body” composed of various “parts,” each obligated to work
toward the common benefit.23 So close is the parts’ union, that when one of
them experiences something, the others experience it as well (1 Cor 12:26).
As “partners” within this community (1 Cor 10:16; 2 Cor 1:7; Phil 1:7; Phlm 17),
believers should submit to each other in service, putting the interests of the
others above the interests of themselves (Phil 2:3-4; Rom 15:1).24 Christ was the
paradigmatic example, who had lowered himself and served to the point of
death (Phil 2:6-11). It was in imitation of Christ that Paul saw himself suffering
vicariously for his communities (Col 1:24; cf. Eph 3:13).
In sum, for those in Christ, social barriers disappeared – those dividing Jew
and Gentile, male and female, slave and free (Gal 3:28; 1 Cor 12:13; Col 3:11). The

22 On the centrality of this idea to Paul’s thought, see Robert C. Tannehill, Dying and Rising
with Christ: A Study in Pauline Theology (Berlin: Töpelmann, 1967); E.P. Sanders, Paul and
Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977);
Constantine Campbell, Paul and Union with Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study
(Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 2012); all harking back to Albert Schweitzer, Die
Mystik des Apostels Paulus (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1930).
23 Esp. in 1 Cor 12:12-27; Rom 12:4-5; but also in 1 Cor 6:15-20; 10:16-17; Eph 1:22-23; 4:4-16, 25;
Col 1:18, 24; 2:19. We find also the metaphor of the church as a “temple” or “building,” built
up together in Christ, in 1 Cor 3:9, 16-17; 6:19-20; 2 Cor 6:16; Eph 2:21-22; 2 Thess 2:4.
24 The καί of Phil 2:4 (“looking not to your own interests but [also] to those of others”) is
omitted in a number of manuscripts. That it is missing in any of them may be signifi-
cant in itself. But the presence in v. 3 of “considering one another as better than your-
selves (ὑπερέχοντας ἑαυτῶν),” combined with the lack of a “not only” for the “also” (καί) to
correlate with in v. 4, serves as strong grounds for exclusion of καί on internal grounds.
Moreover, the no-καί reading is far more in keeping with the spirit of 2:5-11.
(Dis)correspondence of Paul and Seneca on Slavery 191

gospel set all believers on an equal plane. All were one in him. The interest of
the “other” or of the whole community superseded the interests of the self. It
was better to serve than to be served. Carried out consistently, these patterns
of thought would seem to preclude the legitimacy of fixed “master” and “slave”
roles. But what evidence do we have that Paul wished to push things in that
Philemon. The fullest treatment of the issue available to us comes in Paul’s
letter to Philemon, although his treatment there is neither as complete nor as
direct as we could hope. Chief among the difficulties is this: when Paul asks
Philemon to receive his slave back “no longer as a slave, but more than a slave,
a beloved brother” (οὐκέτι ὡς δοῦλον ἀλλ’ ὑπὲρ δοῦλον, ἀδελφὸν ἀγαπητόν; v. 16),
does this mean, “free him from slavery, as he is now a brother,”25 or “relate
toward him as if he is now not only your slave, but also your brother”?26 Not
only is the phrasing ambiguous, but further confusing the matter, the request
mixes language from differing social domains: Philemon and Onesimus are
related asymmetrically as “master” and “slave” in the domain of the world,
but as “brothers,” on an equal plane, within the domain of the church. The
question then arises: which domain would Paul make primary? There seem to
be three possible ways of answering this.
(1) Norman Petersen makes a compelling case that Paul intends for the
church’s “anti-structures,” which are grounded in symmetrical, sibling rela-
tions, to “invade” the world’s social “structures,” which are grounded in hier-
archy. If this is right, then Paul is here demanding that if Philemon wishes to

25 John Barclay calls this the “minority” view (Colossians and Philemon [Sheffield: Sheffield
Academic, 2001], 115). Markus Barth and Helmut Blanke say this view “has not been gen-
erally accepted” (The Letter to Philemon [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000], 414). But many
think that Paul makes a request for manumission even if it is not explicitly asserted:
e.g., J.B. Lightfoot, The Epistles of St. Paul: Colossians and Philemon (London: Macmillan,
1875), 323-24, 345; J.L. Houlden, Paul’s Letters from Prison (Philadelphia: Westminster/John
Knox, 1977), 232; Douglas J. Moo, The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon (Grand
Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 418, 425, 436; and a host of other recent commentators. Others
say it is hinted at but left to Philemon’s initiative: e.g., F.F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colos-
sians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984), 199, 217,
220, 222; Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Letter to Philemon (AB 34C; New Haven: Yale University
Press, 2000), 24, 32, 115, 122; J. Gnilka, Der Philemonbrief (HTKNT 10/4; Freiburg: Herder,
1982), 88; M. Wolter, Der Brief an die Kolosser. Der Brief an Philemon (Ökumenishcer
Taschenbuchkommentar zum Neuen Testament 12; Gütersloh: Gerd Mohn, 1993), 279.
26 Barclay says that a “majority” hold this view. Colossians and Philemon, 115. See also
E. Lohse, Colossians and Philemon (Hermeneia/Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976), 206; G.B.
Caird, Paul’s Letters from Prison (NCB; Oxford: Oxford University, 1976), 220, 222.
192 Brookins

remain within the fellowship of believers, he must choose social relations as

constituted within the domain of the church instead of relations as consti-
tuted within the domain of the world.27
(2) But it is perhaps equally possible that Paul means to leave his meaning
under-determined. Why? The prospect of manumission either on a special-
case basis or as a total program would have had disastrous consequences for
social stability, within both the community and in society at large. This is often
stated rather glibly. John Barclay, however, has demonstrated with impressive
acuity that the challenges involved were indeed serious.28 How would slaves in
other households respond to precedent? When it was discovered that “Christ”
provided a ticket to manumission, what slaves would not line up to have
themselves redeemed? Would masters be forced to tolerate disobedience from
slaves who begged off from their duties on grounds of “conscience”? Would
slaves who “admonished” their masters enjoy immunity from reprisal? Would
masters and slaves be “slaves to each other,” ultimately rendering the distinc-
tion in roles meaningless? Faced with such complications, Paul may not in fact
have known what to recommend to Philemon, even if, in his own judgment, the
master-slave relationship would better have been dissolved. Consequently, he
leaves matters to the deliberation and judgment of the community.29
(3) The least likely possibility, in my view, is that Paul intended to reinforce
the preexisting institutional relationship between the master and his slave
through his letter. Indeed, had he intended to do this, he employed very mis-
leading phrasing in saying so. “No longer (oὐκέτι) as a slave” strongly biases the
interpretation toward the assertion of manumission. Moreover, had he meant
to affirm the master-slave relationship, a “not only . . . but also” construction
(οὐ . . . ἀλλά) – which I hasten to add, was a dear favorite construction of his –
would have far better served his purposes.30

27 Norman R. Petersen, Rediscovering Paul: Philemon and the Sociology of Paul’s Narrative
World (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), 169.
28 J.M.G. Barclay, “Paul, Philemon and Christian Slave-Ownership,” NTS 37 (1991): 161-86, esp.
175. Walter Scheidel’s work also demonstrates just how upsetting to stability attempts to
make radical changes to the social structures might have been (“Demography,” in The
Cambridge Economic History of the Greco-Roman World [ed. W. Scheidel, I. Morris, and R.
Saller; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007], 38-86).
29 As I have argued elsewhere: Timothy A. Brookins, “‘I Rather Appeal to Auctoritas’: Roman
Conceptualizations of Power and Paul’s Letter to Philemon,” CBQ 77.2 (2015): 302-21.
30 E.g., in 1 Corinthians alone: 2:4, 12, 13; 3:1; 4:19, 20; 6:13; 7:4 (x2); 7:10, 35; 10:13, 29; 11:8, 9, 17;
12:14; 14:2, 22 (x2); 14:33, 34; 15:10 (x2), 37, 39, 46. Cf. also μὴ . . . ἀλλά; οὔτε . . . οὔτε . . . ἀλλ’;
μὴ . . . μηδὲ . . . ἀλλ’; and other similar formulations.
(Dis)correspondence of Paul and Seneca on Slavery 193

At all events, it is certainly of interest that Paul decides not to take the
opportunity here, as Seneca does at a similar juncture, to assure his addressee
that he is absolutely not recommending freedom (Ep. 47.18).
As to the ambiguity of the “no longer . . . but also” construction, this seems
far more easily explained on the assumption that Paul leaned toward freedom
than that he was falling back on the status quo. Indeed it would have been
pointless for him to equivocate if his intention had been to reaffirm social ar-
rangements that were already accepted as perfectly legitimate by everyone; on
the other hand, he had every reason for subtlety if his aim was to defy these ar-
rangements. His lack of forthrightness in doing so will have owed partly to his
foresight as to the potential consequences, but it can probably be attributed
equally to his sense of rhetorical discretion: while he could have wielded his
rights as an apostle (cf. v. 9), thus preferring the more forceful option, he sus-
pected that appealing to Philemon instead as an “old man and prisoner” (v. 8)
was more likely to move Philemon to willing cooperation.31 As Aesop’s fable
had affirmed, “Persuasion is more effective than force.”
Eph 6:5-9; Col 3:22-4:1. If we allow that Paul wrote Colossians, and possibly
also Ephesians,32 we can learn something more on our topic from his discus-
sion of master-slave relations in the “household code” passages. It has often
been noted that, whereas Greco-Roman sources bearing this literary form ad-
dress masters only, these letters also address words to slaves (Col 3:22-25; Eph
6:5-8).33 In Colossians, Paul promises these a “reward of inheritance” from
the Lord, that is, the eschatological reward of adoption as sons (cf. Gal 3:18;
3:29-4:7; 4:21-5:1; Eph 1:11, 14, 18; 3:6), in repayment for their goods and services
(Col 3:24). Masters on the other hand are only threatened with the prospect of
punishment (v. 25). Thus Paul, like Seneca, forbids masters from afflicting their
slaves with harsh treatment, or from “committing injustice” (ἠδίκησεν; 4:1).

31 See Brookins, “‘I Rather Appeal to Auctoritas.’”

32 See n4.
33 That slaves get four verses to the masters’ one verse cannot be taken as evidence that
Paul took it easier on the masters. Masters have already been addressed in their roles
as fathers and husbands; and what is said to the slaves stands as a warning not to them
alone but to all (“will be repaid”; cf. Col 3:24-25; Eph 6:8). Slaves at any rate are likely
to have heard this more as a warning to their masters. In fact, the comments to slaves
in Colossians, formulated in the second person as direct address, seem to end at 3:24.
The language of “justice” (δικ-), included in the apparently free-floating truism of v. 25, is
then common to the material addressed directly to masters in 4:1: “the one who commits
injustice (ὁ ἀδικῶν) will be repaid for the injustice committed (ἠδίκησεν). Masters, give
what is just (δίκαιον) and fair to your slaves” (3:25-4:1). Thus, it is toward masters only that
Paul directly issues any kind of injunction pertaining to justice.
194 Brookins

Despite the thrust of these texts in the direction of ameliorated slave con-
ditions, interpreters have often seen the household code passages (and par-
ticularly the discussion in Ephesians) as merely reinforcing the status quo.34
Many point to the difference between Colossians’ injunction for slaves to obey
their masters, “fearing the Lord” (Col 5:22), and Ephesians’ injunction for slaves
to obey their masters “with fear and trembling” (Eph 6:5), thus transferring
the object of fear from the Lord to the masters who represent him.35 But it
should not be overlooked that it is service to Christ that frames the analogy
here (“obey your masters as you obey the Lord”), not the other way around. As
such, “fear and trembling” cannot be meant to paint a picture of slaves cow-
ering before the whip; it rather represents the language of reverence, such as
ought to characterize one’s disposition before God or Christ, more like Seneca’s
idea of “respect” (colere) than his idea of “fear” (timor). The language recalls
the introduction to the same unit, where Paul had enjoined mutual submis-
sion “in the fear of Christ” (5:21).36 In fact, it is to this thought that the master-
slave instructions, just as the husband-wife and children-parent instructions,
are subsumed, as has been widely recognized.37

34 See, e.g., D. Lührmann, “Neutestamentiche Haustafeln und antike Ökonomie,” NTS 27

(1980): 83-97; Harrill, Slaves in the New Testament, 97-117.
35 Keith R. Bradley thinks that the equation of masters with God served to worsen the slave
condition: thus to resist one’s master was to resist God (Slavery and Society at Rome [Cam-
bridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994], 151; cf., in the second century: Did. 4.9-11; Barn.
36 It is also the same expression used of the Corinthians’ reception of Titus in 2 Cor 7:15.
37 Paul issues a series of commands in vv. 17 and 18, which are then elaborated by a series of
participles, beginning with λαλοῦντες in v. 19 and ending with ὑποτασσόμενοι in v. 21. The
length of discussion regarding wives and husbands forces a break in the syntactical sym-
metry between the three kinds of relationships included under the mutual-submission
head. Thematically, however, a three-tiered outline remains, beginning with the heading
“be filled with the Spirit” (5:18), which subsumes a series of behaviors that exemplify this
reality (5:19-21), the last of which in turn subsumes the discussion of three kinds of rela-
“be filled (πληροῦσθε) with the Spirit . . .” (5:18)
speaking (λαλοῦντες) to one another (5:19a) . . .
singing and singing praise (ἄδͅ οντες καὶ ψάλλοντες) in your heart (5:19b) . . .
giving thanks (εὐχαριστοῦντες) always for all things (5:20) . . .
submitting (ὑποτασσόμενοι) to one another out of reverence for Christ . . . (5:21)
wives to their husbands as to the Lord . . . (5:22)
Children, obey your parents . . . (6:1)
Slaves, obey your masters . . . (6:5)
(Dis)correspondence of Paul and Seneca on Slavery 195

Moreover, if mutual submission frames the section, this might require us to

rethink the referent of αὐτά in Eph 6:9 (“do the same things [αὐτά] to them”).
It should be noted that ὑπακούετε is the only imperative in what precedes
(v. 5). To this are subordinated two participial units in vv. 6-7, ποιοῦντες τὸ
θέλημα τοῦ θεοῦ ἐκ ψυχῆς and δουλεύοντες ὡς τῷ κυρίῳ. Verse 8 enjoins nothing
at all, but rather asserts a principle; thus, it is an “assertive” rather than a “di-
rective” speech act. When 6:9 resumes the mode of injunction, then, allowing
ourselves to be carried along by the unit’s discursive flow, the “identical” ad-
jective αὐτά would seem most naturally to echo the last directive given, namely
“serve” (ὑπακούετε, v. 5). To paraphrase:

serve [directive] (v. 5) . . .

doing [assertive] the will of God (v. 6),
serving [assertive] the Lord and not men (v. 7),
knowing [assertive] that each will receive back . . . (v. 8).
Masters do [directive] the same things to them, that is: serve them.

Both Colossians and Ephesians also relativize social roles by recasting masters
and slaves as, alike, “slaves” to a heavenly master (Col 4:1; Eph 6:9). The simi-
larities with Seneca here are again close: both Paul and Seneca recognize an
analogy between the respect a slave ought to hold for his or her master, and
the respect that people ought to hold for God (cf. Ep. 47.18).
1 Cor 7:20-22. 1 Corinthians 7:20-22 is the only other passage in Paul’s let-
ters that addresses the issue of slavery with any directness. The critical portion
comes in v. 21, where Paul says: ἀλλ’ εἰ καὶ δύνασαι ἐλεύθερος γενέσθαι, μᾶλλον
χρῆσαι. Among the many exegetical difficulties presented here, the chief prob-
lem is that the verb, χρῆσαι (“make use of”), lacks an explicit complement. We
are left wondering then: is Paul saying that, if the opportunity for freedom
arises, slaves should “use (freedom),” or they should “use (slavery)”?38 The dif-
ference that these two options make to the overall sense of the verse can be
observed in the following translations:

38 S.S. Bartchy prefers a third option: “use one’s calling” (Mallon Chresai: First Century Slav-
ery and the Interpretation of 1 Corinthians 7:21 [SBLDS 11; Missoula: Scholars, 1973; repr.
1985]). For a survey of the views of interpreters from ancient times to the present, see
Bartchy, Mallon Chresai, 6-7, table 1; cf. Harrill, The Manumission of Slaves in Early Chris-
tianity, 79-108. The survey indicates that the “use freedom” view prevailed prior to John
Chrysostom (4th c.), but “use slavery” from Chrysostom to the Reformers. Interpreters of
the twentieth century were fairly evenly split, modern translations reflect.
196 Brookins

You were called as a slave: do not worry about it. However, if you are
indeed able to become free, become free [i.e., use your freedom].


You were called as a slave: do not worry about it. But even if you are able
to become free, instead of worrying, make the most of your slavery [i.e.,
use your slavery].

At least three points establish the first reading as the correct one:

1 Diachronic research suggests that during the NT period εἰ καί was more
likely to mean “if indeed,” “if, in addition,” than “even if.”39
2 Giving heed to the logical relationship between the first two clauses of the
verse, it becomes evident that it is being a slave when called – not being
manumitted at a later time,40 and not anything else – that explains the
cause of the subject’s being “worried” (“You were called as a slave: do not
worry”); one must try very hard, at least, to see the relationship between
these clauses any differently. Thus, if the opportunity for manumission
presents itself (“if you are able to become free . . .”), Paul has no need then
to remind them not to worry (“. . .instead of worrying”), since the cause of
worry (being a slave) has been removed already in the event of manumis-
sion itself.
3 The prospect of manumission is manifestly put in modally biased terms:
“you are able” (δύνασαι) implies, ipso facto, preference for manumission, not
willy-nilly occurrence.

Thus, Paul means, if a slave is able to become free, s/he ought in-
deed to become free (a vast majority of commentators now take this

39 Chrys C. Caragounis, The Development of Greek and the New Testament: Morphology, Syn-
tax, Phonology, and Textual Transmission (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 294-95.
Harrill adds that in Paul’s letters the juxtaposition of clauses is adversative even when εἰ
καί means “although” (The Manumission of Slaves, 120).
40 Harrill thinks that worry might arise from the fact that “[m]anumission places new re-
sponsibilities upon the Christian slave” (The Manumission of Slaves, 118). While manu-
mission sometimes presented its challenges, however, evidence suggests that sentiments
overall strained toward manumission as the preferable state. It should be added, more-
over, that Bartchy overstated his argument that slaves had “no choice in the matter” (Mal-
lon Chresai, 92-114; cf. Harrill, The Manumission of Slaves, 88-90).
(Dis)correspondence of Paul and Seneca on Slavery 197

view).41 This suggests that if Paul, like Seneca, considered the slave-state a
matter of “indifference,” he nonetheless considered it the “un-preferred” state.
Freedom was better; one ought to take advantage of it.
While Paul provides us with no further discussion of slavery or master-slave
relations as literal, social phenomena, we frequently find him working within
a slave-free metaphorical system. Paul’s use of the metaphor in a horizontal
sense embodies one of his most central ethical values: that of service to others.
Slavery to others is to be undertaken in emulation of the paradigmatic servant,
Christ, who “though rich, became poor for our sake” (2 Cor 8:9; cf. Phil 2:6-11).42
Hence Paul also thinks of himself as a slave to others, for their benefit (1 Cor
9:19; 2 Cor 4:5; Phil 2:3-4).
While these texts provide us with only sketchy evidence of Paul’s views on
slavery, they do give us enough information to help us form some tentative
conclusions. On the one hand, they do not seem to depict a man who had set
abolition of the institution of slavery, or even dissolution of master-slave rela-
tionships between believers, among his highest priorities. On the other hand,
his instructions go a long way in undermining the status differential ordinarily
observed between masters and slaves, and perhaps farther than has generally
been recognized.43 He acknowledges that freedom is generally preferable to
slavery (1 Cor 7:21), that believers (including even masters and slaves) ought to
serve each other (cf. Gal 5:13; Eph 6:9), and despite exhibiting some restraint
in saying it, he seems to have thought that brotherly love might, in some cir-
cumstances, even require manumission (Phlm 16).

41 In my consultation of fifteen commentaries published since 1980, only two preferred

the “use slavery” option: Friedrich Lang, Die Briefe an die Korinther (2d ed; NTD; Göttin-
gen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1994), 96-97; C. Senft, La Premiere Epitre de Saint Paul
aux Corinthiens (2d ed.; CNT; Geneva: Labor et Fides, 1990), 97-98. One other commen-
tary preferred a “middle” view: Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians
(NIGTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 553-59.
42 Paul regards not only service, but also “lowliness” generally, as a value; cf. 1 Cor 1:26-29;
2 Cor 12:9. Yet, he eschews “slavery to people” when it is self-seeking or undertaken at the
expense of service to one’s heavenly master, namely Christ (1 Cor 7:24; cf. Eph 6:6; Col
43 Cf. Gerd Theissen’s notion of “love-patriarchialism” according to which it was maintained
that Paul “takes social differences for granted but ameliorates them through an obligation
of respect and love” (The Social Setting of Pauline Christianity [ed. and trans. John H.
Schütz; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982], 107). Dale Martin goes further, proposing that Paul
advocates the paradigm of the “enslaved leader” (Slavery as Salvation, 100-08).
198 Brookins

3 Comparing Paul and Seneca

Drawing together our discussion so far, one notices that in their remarks on
slavery Paul and Seneca exhibit some striking similarities, but also some criti-
cal differences.
(1) While Paul and Seneca both seem to regard the state of slavery as being
to some extent “indifferent,” even if “un-preferred,” this indifference is more
intensified in Seneca, on account of his and late Stoicism’s greater austerity
toward the body.
(2) Both men recognize a certain “fellowship” among human beings, within
which people relate to each other as equals, whether “in Christ” (through the
received Spirit) or “according to nature” (through the inborn Spirit). On the
surface, it seems that while Paul shows more interest in the fellowship shared
between those “in Christ,” Seneca views the scope of fellowship as extending
to the “human race” at large. However, the difference here is not as great as
it first appears. Seneca had ways of limiting the scope of true community as
well. Ideal friendship, he thought, existed only between equals (Ep. 35; Ben.
2.21.2); likewise, community and partnership were things shared only between
the wise (Ben. 7.12.2; Ep. 7.8); the notion of a “society of humans” (societas
hominum), moreover, seems to have played no role in shaping Seneca’s views
on Roman treatment of foreigners.44 By the same token, Paul demonstrates a
keen interest in universalizing the reach of the Christian community here and
now, even if for him that goal had not yet become a reality.
(3) There is a significant difference between Paul and Seneca with regard
to their attitudes toward social status. Seneca writes as an aristocrat for aris-
tocrats. When he addresses slavery, it is from the posture of a master. Thus,
to the extent that he calls for equality, it is by lifting up the slave to masterli-
ness rather than by lowering the master to slavery. Paul, by contrast, advocates
voluntary movement from higher to lower status, a pattern of self-abasement
through which the believer, like Christ, willingly makes him- or herself a slave
to others. For Paul, social structures apparently impose no limit on the appli-
cation of this ethic; far from that, slavery in service of others is for him the very
definition of cruciform existence (Phil 2:5-11). In this regard, it is interesting
that while Paul uses the slave metaphor in both a negative (1 Cor 7:24) and a
positive sense (9:19), Seneca uses it only negatively: one is a slave not even to
God – nay, he is not even a “half-slave” (Brev. 5.3).
(4) One also needs to take into account the differences that emerge be-
tween Paul and Seneca concerning their conceptualizations of cosmic time.

44 We do, however, find this in Cicero: Off. 1.28.

(Dis)correspondence of Paul and Seneca on Slavery 199

Paul saw himself and his communities caught between two ages, the Old and
the New (Rom 5:12-21). While the New Age was not yet in full bloom, its fea-
tures were already in the process of unfolding (1 Cor 10:11; 2 Cor 5:17). Thus,
if in Christ there was in fact “neither slave nor free, neither male nor female”
(Gal 3:28), such distinctions, if not already effaced, ought to be and ultimately
would be. Stoicism by contrast, for its answer to the question of the human
telos, rested its hope in “inner goods” achievable apart from the vicissitudes
experienced in the body, precisely because Stoicism held out no firm hopes for
a blissful afterlife; at best such prospects were fuzzy. While it is true that in
some places Seneca shows himself willing at least to entertain the possibility
that the myths concerning a haven in the afterlife (sometimes mentioned by
other philosophers) might be true after all (Ep. 63.16), there is much evidence
to show that he himself was inclined to view death rather as “non-existence,”
a state within which the individual lost all perception (e.g., Brev. 18.5; Polyb.
5.2; 9.2; Ep. 54.4; 109.30). In any case, blissful afterlife scenarios are difficult to
fit into the wider Stoic framework. In short, for the Stoics the good life had
to be attainable in this life, apart from the body, if it was to be attained at
all, for there was no controlling one’s physical circumstances, and it was far
from certain that a better existence waited in the offing, at least any existence
that one could be aware of. For Paul, on the other hand, an eschatological cli-
max had already dawned, and its light shone into the present: life here and
now, in the body, reflects the eschatological future wherever this light has
Despite these differences, Paul and Seneca still remained alike in one fur-
ther respect, and for many modern interpreters it is this that remains the fun-
damental issue: neither man apparently applied his principles of equality to-
ward either a program of abolition or a consistent initiative of manumission.
To this issue we now turn.

4 Putting Slavery in Sociological Context

In the analysis above, we have tried as much as possible to base our construal
of Paul’s and Seneca’s views on slavery from within the context of their thought
as a whole. But we have not yet widened our lens far enough. For a deeper un-
derstanding of their views, we must also examine Paul and Seneca against, or
rather within, the wider context(s) in which they participated. More specifi-
cally, our understanding of their views has to take account of the “sociology
of knowledge.” In this, we are concerned with the ways in which typificatory
patterns of social relations serve as a priori interpretive frameworks through
200 Brookins

which people internalize their social experiences and establish knowledge of

the world qua knowledge.
To view things from this perspective is to recognize that knowledge is not
individually but rather socially constructed. Such a model of knowledge need
not imply that social forces determine individual thinking. A non-reductionist
version of this approach would leave room for personal agency, and for growth
or dissent on the part of individuals or groups as influenced from any num-
ber of sources, including religious experience.45 Nonetheless, an accurately-
informed analysis of any individual’s or group’s ideas has to be grounded firmly
within the subject’s social context. Moreover, a more “scientific” account of
these processes can help put into sharper focus the extent to which Paul and
Seneca might have differed from each other in the extent of their acceptance
of, or dissent from, conventional modes of thinking on slavery.
In considering the social side of the issue – or what we might call the human
“construction of reality” – I draw here from the theory of Peter Berger and
Thomas Luckman, who offer the following account of the social processes.46
First, in observing our fellow human actors, we perceive in them certain ha-
bitualized behaviors. These behaviors, when repeated frequently enough, be-
come cast into certain types or roles – e.g., the role of “priest to Mars,” “shoe-
maker,” “swine-herd,” or “cook” – creating typificatory schemes, or role-based
patterns of behavior that come to be seen as normative for face-to-face in-
teractions. These typificatory schemes, when mutually recognized by fellow
actors, then become internalized, and eventually, solidified in society as insti-
tutions. Finally, at the highest level of construction, these institutions become
integrated, through a quasi-reflective process, into symbolic universes, compre-
hensive frameworks through which we interpret the subjective apprehension
of our personal experiences.
Generally, symbolic universes are presupposed and as such are largely pre-
reflective. But when these universes become threatened – by doubt, disagree-
ment, or competition from rival systems – we seek to maintain them, using
conceptual-machineries such as mythology, theology, and philosophy. That is,
through these machineries we attempt to defend and legitimate the “knowl-
edge” of which our symbolic universes are comprised.47 These undertakings

45 For a discussion of this point in relation to sociological theories, see D. Horrell, The So-
cial Ethos of the Corinthian Correspondence: Interests and Ideology from 1 Corinthians to
1 Clement (SNTW; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996), 18-22.
46 For this process, see Berger and Luckman, The Social Construction of Reality.
47 Ibid., 123.
(Dis)correspondence of Paul and Seneca on Slavery 201

constitute fully reflective and more or less systematic attempts to legitimate

the perceived social order. Theology and philosophy, then, reflect a higher-
order apprehension of reality than do symbolic universes: whereas “symbolic
universes” constitute the world “as it is known and therefore as the knowledge
of it shapes one’s experience of it,” a “theology” or “philosophy” of reality con-
stitutes the “product of systematic reflection upon a symbolic universe,” a kind
of knowledge produced “to defend and maintain the knowledge comprising a
symbolic universe.”48
Few people in antiquity are likely to have subscribed to a “theory” or “phi-
losophy” of slavery in the sense that they had integrated slavery reflectively
into a system of ideas. Still most people shared definite “attitudes” or settled
modes of thinking about slavery.49 In this regard, it must be underlined that
nobody in the first century was thinking in terms of whole-scale abolition.50
Many people probably shared something like Aristotle’s view of “natural slav-
ery” (that “by nature” some people were fitted for slavery, and others for free-
dom).51 Moreover, while we have some sketchy, second-hand evidence for the
existence of utopian-minded groups that imagined a world without slavery,52
the available evidence suggests that most people, including Stoics and early
Christians, seem to have accepted the institution uncritically, as part of the
warp and woof of legitimate social order.53
The formative role played by social forces in the construction of reality
helps explain why Paul and Seneca appear to have shared, at least partially,
in the prevailing attitudes of their day toward slaves and slavery. Seneca, for
instance, despite a lot of lofty rhetoric about all people, slave and free, coming

48 Norman Petersen, Rediscovering Paul, 29-30, summarizing Berger and Luckman.

49 Although Garnsey, from whom I borrow this language, says that “No sharp conceptual
distinctions are involved in the division between attitudes to slavery . . . and theories of
slavery” (Ideas of Slavery from Aristotle to Augustine, xv).
50 Recent scholarship on ancient slavery emphasizes that viewing the abolition of slavery
as an ideal is anachronistic. See Bradley, “Seneca and Slavery,” in Seneca, 335-47, 161-72;
Harrill, The Manumission of Slaves; idem, Slaves in the New Testament.
51 We find Aristotle’s view in the Politics. Garnsey discusses Aristotle’s view in his chapter
on “Aristotle,” in Ideas of Slavery, 107-27.
52 See on the Theapeutae: Philo, Contempl., 70; on the Essenes: Philo, Prob. 79; Apol. 11.4;
Josephus, Ant. 18.21.
53 Garnsey’s survey in Ideas of Slavery from Aristotle to Augustine identifies only a “mixed
bag” of critical comments on slavery from the fourth century B.C.E. through the fourth
century C.E. On Christians and Stoics, see Finley, Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology;
Bradley, Slaves and Masters in the Roman Empire, esp. 38, 151.
202 Brookins

from the “same stock” and being endowed by nature with the same capacity for
virtue, betrays in his more passing remarks (which makes them all the more re-
vealing) all the ordinary social prejudices against slaves: they are in fact chattel
(Ben. 5.19.1; 6.3.4; 7.4.4); they are incapable of scoring insults on their superiors
(Const. 10.2-3; Ira 3.37.2); it seems a surprise to him when they do something
noble (Ep. 24.14); more than once he regards them as animals (Ira 3.37.2-3; Ep.
77.6). Moreover, it should not be forgotten that Seneca himself kept a large ret-
inue of personal slaves, up until the day he died.54 Once, he does mention that
the founding Stoic, Zeno, had not owned any slaves, but only for its relevance
to the point that “nature’s needs are scant” and that slaves are superfluous to
survival (Helv. 12.4); Seneca in any case found himself unable to dispense with
their services himself (Tranq. 8.8-9). Recent assessments of Seneca, moreover,
have overturned the modernist depiction of him as a liberal progressive and
champion of humanist ideals. Far from that, he seems on closer assessment to
have been woefully conservative in his views on slavery, and in his emphasis on
decent treatment concerned more with forestalling revolt and thus maintain-
ing the status quo, than with correcting injustice against fellow “humans.”55
Many would level similar criticisms at Paul: even if he did not own slaves him-
self, still the household codes seem to acquiesce to the secular social order,
and disturbingly, to bind slaves to unquestioned obedience to their masters,
through divine mandate (although it is worth adding that many of those who
read the codes this way do not think that Paul wrote them); he treats the state
of slavery as more or less “indifferent” (1 Cor 7:21-22); and while he could have
demanded Onesimus’ freedom in no uncertain terms, still he cannot be for-
given for not having actually done so. Moreover, for Paul equality clearly did

54 See n12 above. For evidence of his personal slaves being present at his death, see Tacitus,
The Death of Seneca.
55 See Bradley, “Seneca and Slavery”; against the earlier assessment of Villy Sørensen,
Seneca: The Humanist at the Court of Nero (trans. W.G. Jones; Chicago: Chicago Univer-
sity Press, 1984), 316-29. Similarly, Veyne, who says that Seneca’s “prescription of humane
treatment for slaves was in no way revolutionary” (Seneca, The Life of a Stoic [trans. D. Sul-
livan; New York/London, 2003], 138). Miriam T. Griffin shows that, where Seneca was in-
volved in legislation relating to slavery, his policies were by no means in advance of his
times (“Seneca on Slavery,” in Seneca: A Philosopher in Politics [Clarendon; Oxford: Ox-
ford University Press, 1976], 256-85, esp. 266). But compare Garnsey’s remark: “the nature
of his [Seneca’s] arguments, and the energy with which they are presented, do perhaps
provide an opening for the suggestion that he felt a twinge of conscience at the inhu-
manity and injustice of slavery” (Ideas of Slavery, 68-69). For Seneca’s concern with the
possibility of revolt, see Clem. 1.24.1; Ep. 47.5.
(Dis)correspondence of Paul and Seneca on Slavery 203

not imply social homogenization: God has placed some to be prophets and
apostles (1 Cor 12:28-29), churches are still to “be subject” to their leaders (1 Cor
16:15-16; cf. 1 Thess 5:12-13), and so forth.
We can make some sense of the tension in Paul’s and Seneca’s views, how-
ever, through further insights in sociological theory regarding the processes
of human socialization. As Berger and Luckman explain, from early child-
hood, objective social reality is mediated through significant others like par-
ents and teachers in a process of “primary socialization.”56 At this stage, medi-
ators of social reality are not understood as institutional functionaries but as
“mediators of reality tout court”;57 thus the institutionalized order is uncriti-
cally received as corresponding virtually absolutely with reality. Following this
stage, however, one’s subjective perception of reality can be modified. When
modification is total (or is perceived to be), the subject is said to have under-
gone an “alternation.”58 The classic case of alternation is religious conversion59
(and here the ancients would also have included philosophical conversion).60
Upon alternation, the subject undergoes “re-socialization.” The processes of
re-socialization “resemble primary socialization, because they have radically
to re-assign reality accents . . . .” Yet, “[t]hey are different from primary social-
ization because they do not start ex nihilo, and as a result must cope with a
problem of dismantling, disintegrating the preceding nomic structure of subjec-
tive reality.”61 In other words, conversion can introduce a problem in which
a new, inherited (in whole or in part) theory/philosophy/theology of social
reality fails to fit the social forms previously perceived or the arrangements al-
ready in place. In this regard, Berger and Luckman observe that, while theories
are sometimes devised in order to protect the status quo, “sometimes social
institutions are changed in order to bring them into conformity with already
existing theories, that is, to make them more ‘legitimate.’”62 As such, social
change happens within a dialectic between “materialistic” (practical/real) and
“idealistic” (theoretical/ideal) factors, and cannot be reduced to one or the

56 Berger and Luckman, The Social Construction of Reality, 150-51.

57 Ibid., 161.
58 Ibid., 176.
59 Ibid., 177.
60 See the writings of Dio Chrysostom; also Lucian, Bis acc. 32; Cicero, Fam. 15.16.3; 17.3; and,
on “instantaneous conversion” in philosophical thought: Plutarch, Mor. 75C.
61 Berger and Luckman, The Social Construction of Reality, 177; my italics.
62 Ibid., 145.
63 Ibid., 146.
204 Brookins

The tension seen in Paul and Seneca on slavery makes a lot of sense when
viewed through this framework. As noted above, most if not all people in their
day accepted slavery as a natural and perfectly legitimate feature of the so-
cial order. That slaves were often treated too harshly was of course a frequent
point of lament, but this seems to have moved virtually no one to hold forth
abolition as even a utopian ideal, and indeed moved absolutely no one remem-
bered to history to undertake such a venture. Rather, the default perspective,
which everyone in the first-century Roman Empire can be expected to have
internalized and in turn reinforced, at least until they experienced some kind
of radically counter-cultural “alternation,” was that slavery itself remained a
fully legitimate institution. This constituted reality as received through pri-
mary socialization in the first-century Greco-Roman world. It was the default
reality, internalized naturally through regular social interaction; neither Jews
nor anyone else was any exception.64
For Paul and Seneca then, vestiges of thinking endemic to the symbolic uni-
verse built up through their primary socialization are likely to have remained
intact. Consequently, the social structures in which slavery was embedded
were likely to have remained at least partially entrenched in their thinking
even after “conversion” took place. Following conversion, re-socialization, in-
sofar as it involved a paradigm shift, then required an iterative process of re-
aligning “theory,” or their reflective theological or philosophical systems, with
the social order as they perceived it: Paul had to reconcile the standing order
with his new Christ-faith, Seneca with his Stoicism.
One of the difficulties faced in undertakings of this kind is that theories
do not translate mechanistically into practice. In this respect, theologians and
philosophers are ever faced with the challenges of adapting their theories to
unique contingencies, and in many cases, to social circumstances that seem
fundamentally at odds with their theories. This adaptation of theory into prac-
tice was precisely the reason for the Stoic development of the department of
philosophy dedicated to “precepts.” Yet, in theory (to shift usages here), Sto-
icism circumvented a “problem of particulars” by claiming that their wise man
grasped the “whole,” and understood all his duties ab universo, “from general
principles” (Ep. 94.2-4). Thus he had no need of situation-specific paraenesis,
but understood what to do in any and all circumstances by his unerring use

64 For a general survey of views, see the literature cited in n50. For Second Temple Jew-
ish views on slavery, see John Byron, Slavery Metaphors in Early Judaism and Pauline
Christianity: A Traditio-historical and Exegetical Examination (WUNT 162; Tübingen: Mohr
Siebeck, 2003).
(Dis)correspondence of Paul and Seneca on Slavery 205

of “reason.”65 The wise man notwithstanding, Seneca himself appears to have

been torn with tension between doctrine and practice. In Paul’s case, the chal-
lenge was still greater, because the substance of his “theory” was predicated
neither on any fixed body of teaching (not even the Law), nor on inherited
Jewish practices, but on the freer “law of love,” constituted “in Christ” and ap-
plied “through the Spirit.”66 This left a great deal open when it came to the
outworking of theory within various departments of life. One might say then
that Paul, even in the reflective mode of “theology,” was largely un-systematic.
Moreover, new theories are constructed in a process of integration of so-
cial reality as it has come to be “known”; they do not descend on people all-
complete. Paul was no exception, for although he claims to have received the
essence of his gospel “not from men but through revelation from Jesus Christ”
(Gal 1:12), and even to have received fresh revelations from time to time (2 Cor
12:4), he was also confessedly indebted to the Christian “tradition,” and his let-
ters present us with plain evidence that he found himself constantly engaged
in a process of reflection and development, as prompted by the ever-changing
contingencies of his ministry. In that respect, Paul’s theology was not a fixed
body of thought, but a work in progress.67
What does all of this amount to? That Paul and Seneca must both have
been caught to some extent between the world of their primary socialization,
in which slavery was accepted more or less without challenge, and their re-
socialization, which introduced to them ways of thinking that ran counter
to otherwise accepted modes of thinking. Understanding socialization in this
way, it is evident that there is never a clean break between primary socializa-
tion and re-socialization, as if complete demolition of the one preceded initial
construction of the other. Rather, the one is stripped down at the same time
the other is going up. Moreover, at each level of socialization – primary and
re-socialization – socialization emerges in a dialectic between the subject’s
theory of social order on the one hand (Idealfaktoren), and the shape that so-
cial institutions already take and that constrain his apperceptions of reality on
the other (Realfaktoren). That is, preexisting social institutions inevitably be-

65 Cf. also Josephus’ claim that the Law of Moses not only defines instructions for piety in all
matters of life, but also applies these instructions to every possible contingency, so that
the Law need never be revised or updated (Ap. 2.170-183, 271-75, 277, 283, 294, 322-25).
66 Barclay, “Matching Theory and Practice: Josephus’s Constitutional Ideal and Paul’s
Strategy in Corinth,” in Paul Beyond the Judaism/Hellenism Divide (ed. Troels Engberg-
Pedersen; Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2001), 139-64.
67 Or as James Dunn so aptly puts it: “Paul’s theologizing was his theology” (“The Narrative
Approach to Paul: Whose Story,” in Narrative Dynamics in Paul [ed. Bruce W. Longenecker;
Louisville/London: Westminster John Knox, 2002], 224).
206 Brookins

come internalized, and through that process ultimately crystallize into some
symbolic universe through which social reality is then interpreted and conse-
quently reinforced; and yet the subject’s reflection on his symbolic universe can
provoke him to seek out changes in the current social order where he senses
that his theory demands it. He may relieve any remaining tension either by
accommodating his theory to existing social structures, or by setting himself
to reshaping social structures into conformity with his theory. Repeated rein-
tegration continues as long as tension between theory and the existing social
structures remains perceptible.
In sum, the dialectic of social forces at work in socialization processes op-
erates along at least two different axes: first at the level of tension between
primary socialization and re-socialization, and second at the level of tension
between theory (Idealfaktoren) and reality (Realfaktoren), felt at both levels of
In light of these considerations, let us briefly address two final points of
comparison between Paul and Seneca. First, it seems possible at this point
to form a preliminary judgment as to which of the two was straining harder
against the current of slavery. From our Western, post-abolitionist vantage
point, either man could be faulted for failing to take more radical measures
in applying his “theory” of social relations to the issue. But of the two it is
Paul that seems to have been staring more intently in the direction of change.
Indeed, for Paul, eschatological existence imposes itself upon the present or-
der, demanding a transformation not only of the mind, but also of exist-
ing social structures. Accordingly, his dominating metaphor for believers, as
“brothers/sisters,” strikes hard against the master-slave status differential, at
least when master and slave are both believers.68 This eschatological pressure,
which transforms fictive equality into present social reality, does not figure in
the thinking of Seneca (nor in Stoicism generally). Moreover, as recent studies
have shown, Seneca in fact seems to have made little to no effort to change
slavery at the institutional or legal level, even though he found himself in a
unique position to do so (being not only a Roman aristocrat, but no less than
chief advisor to the emperor, and directly involved in crafting legislation). By
contrast, the only option open to Paul, powerless as he was to change social
structures on a legal front, was a choice between “revolution and transfor-
mation from within.”69 Obviously he opted for the latter. Admittedly, for him

68 Petersen concludes that Paul does not attack the institution of slavery but “only the par-
ticipation in it of a believing master and his believing slave” (Rediscovering Paul, 289).
69 James D.G. Dunn, The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon (NIGTC; Grand Rapids:
Eerdmans, 1996), 253.
(Dis)correspondence of Paul and Seneca on Slavery 207

there did remain a tension between the “ideals of brotherhood and the practi-
cal realities of slavery,”70 which I am attributing partly to the tension between
his primary socialization (according to which slavery was probably thought
morally acceptable) and his re-socialization upon conversion (according to
which all people were viewed as equals). It is hard to tell how conscious he
was of this tension. Nonetheless, it seems that in this process of transition,
the distance traveled was greater, and the metamorphosis more complete, in
Paul’s journey than it was in Seneca’s.
As a final observation, it should be said that Seneca, however, seems to have
been the more “reflective” of the two when it came to tensions in his thought.
This point perhaps finds part of its explanation in the difference of purpose
between Paul’s letters, which are personal and largely informal in nature, and
the works of Seneca, which are much more discursive, and essentially sys-
tematic in scope (so he claims: see below). Even Seneca’s letters, which he
would have us believe are “rather carelessly written” (Ep. 75.1), betray the ar-
tificiality of formal literary prose, and were by his own admission intended
for publication (Ep. 21.5); and he states expressly that he intended for them to
cover “the whole department of moral philosophy” (Ep. 106.2; 108.1).71 In this
reflective mode of discourse, then, Seneca was acutely aware of the tension
between ideas and practice, the universal and the particular, and we find him
constantly striving to reconcile them. In this regard, he says that the wise man
does not just receive the doctrines of his school, he creates new things from
old (Ep. 33.8-9); he does not simply take in ideas, he “digests” them (Ep. 84.7);
philosophers, like bees, “cross-pollinate” ideas, making “many things” (partic-
ulars) from “one thing” (the universal) (Ep. 84.5-10). While the rest of us see
through a mist (caligo), comprehending objects only in their separateness (Ep.
89.1-2), the wise man possesses a global understanding of the truth. With each
of these tropes, Seneca reflects awareness of the difficulties involved in work-
ing out theoretical frameworks in our complex concrete reality, and awareness
also of the malleability of knowledge as it relates to particulars (see especially
Ep. 33). Paul, for his part, would leave such matters to the guidance of the
Spirit. But even in these differences it is evident that each man, in his own
way, allowed room in his thinking for change, for new syntheses of human
knowledge, in light of new apperceptions.

70 Barclay, “Paul, Philemon, and Christian Slave Ownership,” 182.

71 Griffin calls Seneca’s letters “dialogues with an epistolary veneer” (Seneca, 350).
Paul and Seneca on Women
Pauline Nigh Hogan

1 Introduction

If Seneca and Paul had the opportunity to sit down and discuss their views of
women, the conversation might have gone something like this:
“Paul, old chap, I have no argument with your claim that women are
equally as capable of virtue and courage as men. But you have to admit
the dear things are much better off overseeing the house than capering
about in public squares and travelling hither and thither trying to win con-
verts for this new religion of yours. Women really are at their best tak-
ing care of the family’s honour and welfare; they are the angels of the
“Seneca, my friend, I’d agree that a good woman graces a home like
nothing else. It’s hard to know how to treat them when they’re active
in the public spaces we’ve gotten used to seeing men occupy. But I’ve
seen what women apostles and teachers can accomplish, and we simply
couldn’t do without them! I consider them just as much co-workers as
I do their brothers or husbands. Let me tell you about a woman named
It would have been a fascinating conversation. Since we lack any record of
such an event, however, we will have to be content with drawing the opin-
ions of each of these thinkers from their individual writings, so influential in
different ways on currents of thought in the Greco-Roman culture of the first
Our curiosity about the thoughts of Paul and of Seneca concerning women
is natural. Gender was one of the great dividers in Greek and Roman society.
In a culture in which social markers such as citizenship, class, and free or slave
status were basic to all activity, public and private, gender was the most basic
marker of all. While a man born a slave could aspire to become free, and even
possibly to acquire citizenship, gender was unchangeable. The life of a woman
was circumscribed, especially in elite families, compared to the possibilities
open to men.
Roman culture was decidedly patriarchal. The power of the head of the
family, the patria potestas, gave the paterfamilias the right to arrange mar-
riages for even grown sons and daughters. He could later force them to divorce
if he wished, and he could even execute those deemed to have brought dis-

© Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2017 | DOI 10.1163/9789004341364 011

Paul and Seneca on Women 209

grace to the dignitas of the family.1 Upon the death of the pater, an adult son
would achieve emancipation and become himself a paterfamilias, but daugh-
ters would still need an adult male guardian, or tutor, to approve any legal
decisions. Women were assumed to be weak in judgement, and because of
their exclusion from public life they rarely had the opportunity to become
knowledgeable about law and business practice.2 It is not surprising then that
literature of the period, written almost exclusively by elite men, would be an-
drocentric, written for an audience or readership of elite men. Even in an essay
directed explicitly to a woman, Ad Marciam de consolatione, Seneca at times
assumes a male reader:

All these fortuitous things, Marcia, that glitter about us – children, hon-
ours, wealth, spacious halls and vestibules packed with a throng of unad-
mitted clients, a famous name, a high-born or beautiful wife, and all else
that depends upon uncertain and fickle chance – these are not our own
but borrowed. (Marc. 10.1 [Basore, LCL], my italics)3

We see the same tendency in Paul’s letters, in the way he frames the discussion
in both Galatians and Romans about the acceptance of Gentiles into Christian
fellowship. He presents the issue in terms of circumcision, without any con-
scious aside to the women in the congregations (who might have wondered, at
least, about the need to keep a kosher kitchen).
As well as in the realms of legal rights and unconscious social assump-
tions, gender affected ideas of space in the Greco-Roman world. Public spaces
such as the forum and the halls of the Senate, and the worlds of politics,
government, and business, were considered the prerogative of men. Private
spaces, namely the home and garden, were ideally the domain of women,
although this ideal ignores the fact that Roman men commonly received
clients in the reception rooms of their homes, where family members min-
gled freely. Scholars have noted the evidence that Roman women had more
liberty than women in the Hellenistic world. Perhaps influenced by earlier

1 This right was finally abolished in the reign of Valentinian and Valens, 364-378 C.E. See Jane F.
Gardner, Women in Roman Law and Society (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995),
2 Gardner, Women in Roman Law, 21-22.
3 Wilcox comments that “the Ad Marciam and Ad Helviam are nearly unique in having female
addressees, although it must be noted that they were intended for a wider, largely male,
readership” (Amanda Wilcox, “Exemplary Grief: Gender and Virtue in Seneca’s Consolations
to Women,” Helios 33.1, [2006], 75).
210 Nigh Hogan

Etruscan custom, proper Roman women are known to have attended dinners
with their husbands, something virtuous Greek wives were not expected to
Ideals held up for the social behaviour of women and men were intended
for elite groups. Many exceptions were evident in actual practice. Recent
scholars have noted mounting evidence of the participation of Roman women
during the early imperial period in economic pursuits, priesthoods, and public
benefaction, in fact in all areas of the social life of Roman cities, excluding only
positions of political power.5 As has been stated,

the social invisibility of women in public life in Greco-Roman antiquity

is striking compared to many other cultures. But social invisibility is con-
ceptual; it exists in the minds of those who articulate the ideal and may
bear no resemblance to what is really going on.6

Slave women and free women of the lower class, moreover, would have been
very visible in the public areas of the city where they were involved in working,
either for their masters or their own families.
Many writers including both Paul and Seneca acknowledge the activity and
influence of women in areas theoretically considered the domain of men.
Showing heroism in battle, for example, was considered appropriate for men.
Yet Seneca praises the legendary Cloelia, who led a group of young women to
swim a river under a hail of arrows to escape their captors. The Romans erected
an equestrian statue to her as to a hero (Marc. 16.2). Romans also revered an-
other group of women renowned in legend who marched to confront the rebel
Coriolanus, and successfully persuaded him not to attack his native city (Livy
2.40). Similarly, taking a leadership role in an association that comprised a
mixed company of men and women might ordinarily be considered a male

4 Elaine Fantham et al., Women in the Classical World: Image and Text (Oxford: Oxford Univer-
sity Press, 1994), 247, 281. Recent scholars have questioned the accuracy of this common Ro-
man viewpoint about Greek society. This trope may have served as rhetorical shorthand for
Roman superiority. Milnor suggests: “The absence of gendered spaces in the Roman house
. . . illustrates [for Romans] the perfectly blended and balanced state of Italian domestic life”
(Kristina Milnor, Gender, Domesticity, and the Age of Augustus: Inventing Private Life [Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 2005], 137).
5 Emily Hemelrijk and Greg Woolf, Women and the Roman City in the Latin West (Leiden: Brill,
2013), 3.
6 Carolyn Osiek and Margaret MacDonald, A Woman’s Place: House Churches in Earliest Chris-
tianity (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006), 3.
Paul and Seneca on Women 211

role. Yet Paul, in Romans 16, commends several women for just such roles in
the early Christian assemblies, including the deacon Phoebe, his co-worker
Prisca, and Junia, a relative who is “prominent among the apostles” (Rom 16:7).
We need to keep in mind, therefore, that writers such as Seneca and Paul,
who cited idealized roles for women, may have at the same time admired
women who broke out of the restrictions of the norm the writers claimed
to find commendable. The ideal expressed is not necessarily evidence of the
actual practice, and perhaps what Seneca and Paul have most in common is
that they admire exceptional women who are the exception to the rule.7
We will be examining some of the writings of Seneca, the Consolations ad-
dressed to Marcia and Helvia, to explore his views of women.8 We will also be
looking at some of the letters of Paul, especially Galatians, 1 Corinthians, and
Romans, to examine his views. Our task then will be to ask what each man
would say to the other about his understanding of women and their roles.
There are difficulties that need to be acknowledged in this endeavour. First
is that Seneca and Paul were writing to different kinds of audiences. Seneca’s
intended readers belonged to an elite social class; they were free, wealthy, and
influential. Paul’s intended audience, on the other hand, comprised a mixed
group, the majority of the lowest class, either slaves or freedmen and women.
As he notes in 1 Cor 1:26: “Not many of you were wise by human standards, not
many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.”9 Some were merchants,
some owned property, and a few appear to have been leaders in provincial so-
ciety.10 Thus, for many, their freedom of movement would have varied greatly
from that of Seneca’s readers. The expectations of behaviour for Paul’s audi-
ence would have varied as well. It was commonly acknowledged that slaves,
for example, could not always be held accountable for their actions in the way

7 For the gap between ideal and reality among Hellenistic and Roman women, see the
discussion in Fantham et al., Women in the Classical World, 348ff., and Sarah Pomeroy,
Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity (New York: Schocken,
1995), 133-41, 149-63.
8 As well as the Loeb edition of Seneca: Moral Essays, vol. 2, trans. John Basore, I have
also used Seneca: Dialogues and Essays, trans. John Davie (Oxford World’s Classics, 2007).
Unless otherwise indicated, I have used the Davie translation for the Consolations.
9 All Bible translations in this essay are from the NRSV.
10 Many sources, ancient and modern, discuss the social status of New Testament-era Chris-
tians. See, for example, Osiek and MacDonald, A Woman’s Place; Gillian Clark, Chris-
tianity and Roman Society (Key Themes in Ancient History; Cambridge: Cambridge Uni-
versity Press, 2004); Bruce W. Winter, Roman Wives, Roman Widows: The Appearance of
New Women and the Pauline Communities (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003); Jennifer
Glancy, Slavery in Early Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).
212 Nigh Hogan

that free citizens could. In recognition of this difference, marriage laws and
penalties for immoral conduct, such as those introduced by Augustus, held
slaves and former slaves to a different standard.11
A further difficulty in recreating the conversation between Seneca and Paul
is posed by the different genres of the texts we will look at. Both Seneca and
Paul were ostensibly writing letters, but Seneca’s letters were really essays,
presenting a balanced discussion of the topic of consolation and setting out
Stoic ideals about handling grief. At times it is hard to distinguish the thoughts
that are personal to Seneca from those that are formulas of philosophical rea-
soning. His style is elegant, formal, and restrained. Seneca’s sense of personal
warmth is not always evident, although in the Consolation to Helvia, addressed
to his mother during his exile, it is most noticeable.
Paul’s letters, however, were written in response to troublesome issues that
arose in the early churches. His arguments are vehement in countering what
he perceives as serious misunderstanding of the gospel he preached. His style,
unlike Seneca’s, is not measured and elegant, but forceful and at times almost
incoherent in his eagerness to make his point as strongly as possible. Paul
writes very personal, heartfelt letters, and makes no attempt to hide his emo-
tional investment in solving the crises they address.
Keeping these distinctions of purpose, of personal investment, and of in-
tended audience in mind, we can nevertheless find a number of overlapping
positions in Seneca and Paul on their understanding of women’s abilities and
importance. We will also note a few areas in which their differences regarding
women’s roles would have led to a lively debate.

2 Seneca on Women

The convention that women are particularly susceptible to the dominance of

the passions, thus leading to irrational behaviour and social disruption, is as
much a commonplace in Roman as in Greek literature.12 The theme is par-
ticularly well illustrated in Seneca’s tragedy Phaedra. The title character has,
because of her inability or unwillingness to resist an illicit passion for her step-
son, completely abandoned her duties as wife and queen. As evidence of her

11 See Gardner, Women in Roman Law, 31-65, 117-36; Glancy, Slavery in Early Christianity,
51-57; Osiek and MacDonald, A Woman’s Place, 95-117.
12 Roland Mayer, Seneca: Phaedra (London: Duckworth, 2002), 51. Christian literature is not
exempt from this trope; see 1 Tim 2:14.
Paul and Seneca on Women 213

disordered mind, she has even given up working with wool, the activity em-
blematic of traditional Roman female virtue:13

My loom stands still, the wool drops from my hands;

I have no heart to make my offerings
At the gods’ temples, or to take my place
Among the dances of the Attic women. (Phaed. 107-110)14

Instead, Phaedra has become enamoured of hunting, the typically masculine

activity. In the same play, Phaedra’s stepson Hippolytus expresses the conven-
tional view: “Woman, say what you will, / Is the prime mover of all wicked-
ness” (Phaed. 560-561).15 Of the nine Senecan tragedies that survive, three
highlight women whose passions caused disasters: Medea, Phaedra, and The
Trojan Women.
Wilcox has noted that when addressing male issues, Seneca commonly used
the stereotype of feminine equalling soft, languorous, and vicious, but when
addressing a woman, as he does in the Ad Marciam and Ad Helviam, he as-
serts that women have equal capacity as men for virtue.16 The Stoic position
that anyone, even a slave or a woman, could benefit from studying philosophy,
seems to come into play in his two consolations addressed to women.17

2.1 Ad Marciam
The earliest of Seneca’s extant works, Ad Marciam de consolatione was writ-
ten sometime between 37 and 41 C.E., in the reign of Caligula.18 Marcia was a
friend of Augustus’ wife Livia, and thus, like Seneca, well-known in imperial

13 Working with wool was cited and pictured as emblematic of the virtuous Roman ma-
trona in numerous funeral inscriptions. Augustus notably wore clothing produced in his
own household, by his own wife and daughter, as public testimony to his concern for
traditional values. See Milnor, Gender, Domesticity, 84-85; Fantham et al., Women in the
Classical World, 318. Hemelrijk notes that women’s virtues, from epigraphic sources, were
commonly pudicitia, modestia, obsequium, and lanificium (chastity, modesty, obedience,
and wool working) in Emily A. Hemelrijk, “Masculinity and Femininity in the Laudatio
Turiae,” CQ 54.1 (2004): 188.
14 E.F. Watling, trans., Seneca: Four Tragedies and Octavia (London: Penguin, 1966), 102-03.
15 Watling, 120. The author of 1 Tim 2:14 would have agreed with Hippolytus.
16 Amanda Wilcox, The Gift of Correspondence in Classical Rome: Friendship in Cicero’s Ad
Familiares and Seneca’s Moral Epistles (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2012), 79.
17 See Winter, Roman Wives, 60-65, for a discussion of the Stoic Musonius Rufus on women
and philosophy. Note also Clement of Alexandria, Strom. 4.8.58-59.
18 Basore, LCL 254, viii; Davie, Seneca, xxi-xxii.
214 Nigh Hogan

court circles. She was the daughter of the historian Aulus Cremutius Cordus,
who had been impelled to commit suicide under the persecution of Sejanus
twenty-some years earlier, as Seneca recalls in this essay. At the time of writing
Marcia had been mourning three years for her son Metelius, and this provides
Seneca the opportunity to reflect on the futility of excessive grief and the con-
solation to be had in rational reflection about one’s loss.
Seneca begins with a theme that recurs in his Ad Helviam: that although
female weakness of mind (infirmitas muliebris animi) is well-known, yet the
woman he addresses is not prey to that weakness. Indeed, Marcia’s strength of
mind has already been displayed in the noble manner in which she bore the
death of her father. Not only did she maintain a composed public face during
that time, but she ensured the survival of her father’s writings, an act Seneca
deems “an outstanding service you rendered to Roman scholarship” (Marc. 1.3).
Because of her strength of spirit, Seneca declares, he is bold enough to tell
her that she has mourned long enough. As examples of inappropriate and
appropriate mourning, Seneca holds up Octavia, the sister of Augustus, who
lost her son Marcellus, and Livia, wife of Augustus, who lost her son, the very
accomplished general Drusus. Both young men were in line for the imperial
throne. Both young men were admirable, and a great loss to their families and
the state.
Octavia, says Seneca, “set no bounds to her tears and moans” for the rest
of her life, refusing to hear any stories about her son or to have any portraits
made of him (Marc. 2.4). For Seneca, she represents mourning taken to an
excessive extreme. Livia, on the other hand, mourned along with the rest of
the nation on the death of Drusus. After his funeral, however, she “laid aside
her sorrow along with her son, and grieved no more than was honourable
or just to the emperor, considering he still lived” (Marc. 3.1). Seneca makes
the point that a woman’s grief reflects upon her family’s dignitas, and in this
case the family was the emperor’s own. Livia, Seneca continues, loved to speak
of her son’s exploits, had his likeness portrayed widely, and thus created joy
from her memories of him. Livia stands as the positive example of woman’s
Seneca goes on to discuss a number of questions about the propriety of
mourning. Although it is natural to mourn, he notes, yet even in grief mod-
eration should be shown. He reiterates the well-known theme, that women
cannot control their passions:

Again, so that you may know that it is not Nature’s will that we be broken
by grief, note in the first place that, despite suffering the same bereave-
ment, women are wounded more deeply than men, barbarian people
Paul and Seneca on Women 215

more deeply than members of a peaceful and enlightened race, the une-
ducated more deeply than the educated. (Marc. 7.3)

Clearly, strengthening of the mind through education makes the difference.

Emotion should always be governed by reason. Seneca anticipates Marcia’s
protest that as a woman she must be allowed to grieve:

I am aware of what you are saying: “You have forgotten that you are con-
soling a woman, and you are citing examples of men.” But who has stated
that Nature has been ungenerous to women’s natures and has tightly re-
stricted their virtues [virtutes]? They have just as much energy, believe
me, just as much aptitude for noble actions, should they wish; they en-
dure pain and toil as well as we do, if they have grown accustomed to
them. (Marc. 16.1)

Seneca’s words are not an uncommon trope among Stoic writers. Musonius
Rufus, Seneca’s younger contemporary, in discussing whether women as well
as men should study philosophy, declared that a virtuous woman was able
“to control her temper, not to be overcome by grief, and to be superior to
uncontrolled emotion of every kind. These are the things which the teach-
ings of philosophy transmit.”19 The sentiment would be echoed by Clement of
Alexandria in the late second century: “For self-control is common to all hu-
man beings who have made choice of it . . . as far as respects human nature,
the woman does not possess one nature, and the man another, but the same:
so also with virtue (ἀρετή) (Strom. 4.8.58-59). Women, at least in the letters
Seneca addressed to them, are depicted as capable of as much virtue as men,
and therefore able to control their grief.
The Roman concept of virtus implied, as did the Greek ἀρετή, public recog-
nition of one’s proper behaviour. This posed a dilemma for women who
were expected to shun public display.20 However, for Seneca’s purposes in

19 Lecture 3, text and translation by Cora E. Lutz, Musonius Rufus: The Roman Socrates (Yale
Classical Studies 10; New Haven: Yale University Press, 1947). Winter notes: “There are
significant philosophical sources that deal with issues relating to the ‘new’ women and
provide an important comparison with the more succinctly expressed instructions to
women in the Pauline communities. This is also true of the moral conduct of single and
married men, striking the same balance in terms of equal ethical demands on men as
well as married women required in the Christian communities” (Roman Wives, 59).
20 Seneca suggests in a letter to Lucilius that virtue can be demonstrated privately: Est,
mihi crede, virtuti etiam in lectulo locus (“There is, believe me, a place for virtue even in
216 Nigh Hogan

Ad Marciam, virtue needs to be recognized in order to provide an example.

“A woman’s performance of exemplary virtue, then, requires that ordinary
rules for virtuous female behaviour be placed in abeyance.”21 Thus Livia, who
very publicly mourned Drusus, is admired over Octavia, who retired to her
private grief. In writing this letter, in fact, Seneca is further publicising Livia’s
Seneca’s letter contains tender pictures of family affection. The love be-
tween Marcia and her father is described in their parting scene, when she
learns that he is starving himself to escape the humiliating death planned for
him by Sejanus. Cordus called for his daughter when it was too late for her to

He held you close and said, “My darling daughter, this is the only thing
I have ever kept secret from you in all my life: I have begun my journey
towards death and now am almost halfway there; you must not, and you
cannot, call me back.” (Marc. 22.7)

Seneca also reminds Marcia of the virtues of her son Metelius, and their close

Left as a ward, he was under the care of guardians up to his fourteenth

year, but his mother was his guardian for all his life. Although he had
his own home, he did not want to leave yours, and he persisted in living
under his mother’s roof at a time when children can scarcely bear to
share the home of their father. (Marc. 24.1)

These are pictures of real attachment among parents and children. Marcia
should, suggests Seneca, draw comfort from the memory of her closeness to
her son, and from pride in the virtuous life he led. Moreover, it is only an image
of Metelius that has perished, he says. The real man is whole, and blessed, and
learning all Nature’s secrets as he walks the pathways of the stars.
Many of the themes in Ad Marciam are standard to Stoic consolation; we
find them also in Seneca’s Ad Polybium de consolatione.22 Appropriately, much
more attention is paid in Ad Marciam to female grief and its problems. Seneca

a sick bed,” Ep. 78.21, trans. Wilcox) See the discussion of traditional Roman versus Stoic
concepts of virtue in Wilcox, “Exemplary Grief,” 76-80.
21 Wilcox, “Exemplary Grief,” 80.
22 Polybius, a freedman who worked as secretary to the emperor Claudius, had quite sud-
denly lost a brother who was, like him, a respected scholar. Seneca wrote this essay during
Paul and Seneca on Women 217

finds female mourning rather unsavoury because it is less controlled than that
of men. He compliments Marcia specifically on her lack of female weakness of

If I was not aware, Marcia, that you were as much a stranger to female
weakness of mind as to all other vices, and that your character was re-
garded as a pattern of ancient virtue, I should not be bold enough to
presume on your grief, the emotion that even men gladly embrace and
brood over. (Marc. 1.1)

If even men, those ideal figures of Greek and Roman philosophy, can succumb
to grief, then we can forgive Marcia, it seems, although it is time to buck up,
according to Seneca. “All life is worthy of our tears,” he says, and so “you women
especially, so uncontrolled in grieving, should practise moderation, and bring
the power of the human heart to bear against your many sorrows” (Marc. 11.1).

2.2 Ad Helviam
Seneca’s address to his mother, Ad Helviam de consolatione, comes from a dif-
ferent context than Ad Marciam. He wrote this Consolation while in exile,
probably near the beginning of his time on Corsica, 43 or 44 C.E. Seneca’s pur-
pose in this essay was to console his mother over his long absence:

I was . . . troubled by the fear that Fortune, though defeated by me, might
defeat someone I held dear. Therefore I was trying as best I could to creep
up to bind your wounds, having put a hand over the gash I had suffered
myself. (Helv. 1.1)

Seneca devotes considerable space to comparing his lot to that of other noted
exiles, and to presenting Stoic formulas that bear on that state, such as the
possibility of being happy in any condition.23 A great deal of this essay is fo-
cussed, however, specifically on his mother’s situation. He notes that women
tend to lack political power compared to men, since they cannot seek office,
and therefore his mother might be concerned over the absence of his protec-
tion. Seneca assures his mother she has nothing to fear, since she made so

a period of exile (41-49 C.E.), when he had incurred the emperor’s anger over a charge of
adultery with Caligula’s sister Julia. As is transparently evident, he probably hoped his
fine words would influence Claudius to relent toward him (Basore, LCL 254, n358).
23 Compare Philo, Quod omnis probus liber sit (Every Good Man Is Free) LCL 363.
218 Nigh Hogan

little use of his influence for her own gain that she need not fear its loss. He
compliments her for her selfless support of his and his brother’s advancement:

You made so little use of our influence that you might have been dealing
with the property of a stranger, and all that accrued to you when we were
elected to office was the pleasure and the expense it caused you. At no
time did your care for us look to your own advantage. (Helv. 14.3)

Since it is not the loss of his political influence that she mourns, Seneca con-
cludes that it is his own presence that she misses:

I must concentrate all my effort at consolation on . . . the true source

of the force that informs a mother’s grief: “Well then, I am denied the
embrace of my beloved son; I am not able to enjoy the pleasure of his
conversation.” (Helv. 15.1)

Seneca admits that this loss of personal intimacy and rich conversation with
one another is indeed worthy of grief. “Fortune has been cruel in engineer-
ing even this blow against you,” he acknowledges. Nevertheless, he urges her
to bear the blow with restraint. He confronts the argument that women are
allowed to weep with the counter argument that Helvia is superior to most

It is not open to you to use the excuse of being a woman, who has vir-
tually been granted the right to excessive, though not boundless, tears. . .
Life, that was more exacting from the start, demands more of you; the
excuse of being a woman cannot apply to one who has always been free
from all the female weaknesses. (Helv. 16.1-2)24

After refusing to allow his mother any weaknesses, Seneca goes on to refer to
her many “ancient” virtues: she was never unfaithful to her husband, never
lusted after jewellery or wealth, and was not tempted to imitate other less
virtuous women. She was never ashamed of the number of children she bore,

24 “Life, that was more exacting from the start” refers to the fact that Helvia’s own mother
died in childbirth, and she was raised by a stepmother. Seneca discusses this in Ad Helvia
2.4. For the trope of the evil stepmother in Roman literature, see Mairéad McAuley, “Spec-
tres of Medea: The Rhetoric of Stepmotherhood and Motherhood in Seneca’s Phaedra,”
Helios 39.1 (2012): 37-72.
Paul and Seneca on Women 219

never attempted to hide her pregnancies or to abort them; she never used
cosmetics or wore revealing clothing.25
To encourage his mother in bearing their separation, Seneca recalls the mer-
its of famous women of the past, such as the much-praised Cornelia, who re-
fused to curse fate for the deaths in infancy of ten children, since she had
been so fortunate as to have raised the two Gracchi. He also refers Helvia to
the study of philosophy to bring consolation. He notes that she had begun its
study earlier in life, but was restricted by her husband’s old-fashioned worries
about women’s education. Seneca’s father apparently thought well-educated
women were tempted to flaunt their learning, and so brought his wife’s foray
into philosophy to an end. Her son now encourages her to pick up her studies
again, since she already has a good foundation: “They will console you, they
will delight you, and if they enter your mind in earnest, never more shall grief
find access there” (Helv. 17.5).
As is common in consolations, Seneca reminds Helvia of the remaining
family members she has to comfort her. As well as his two brothers and her
grandchildren, he mentions in particular her sister, or sister-in-law, the aunt
with whom Seneca spent some time in Egypt recovering his health as a young
man. We learn that Seneca considers her perfectissima femina, “a paragon
among women” (Helv. 19.4). What has she done to elicit this praise? She was
married as a young woman (probably a teenager) to Seneca’s uncle.26 She is
shy and modest. She spent sixteen years in Egypt during her husband’s term
there as governor, and yet during that whole time:

She was never seen in public, never granted a native of that country ac-
cess to her home, never made a request of her husband [presumably for
a political favour], or allowed him to make one of her. Accordingly, that
province so given to gossip, so adept at inventing insults for its rulers,
where even those who avoided blame did not escape a bad reputation,
looked up to her as a unique instance of a virtuous nature and suppressed
every tendency to talk too freely about her. . . . It would be a great achieve-
ment if over sixteen years she had gained the approval of that province:
it was greater still that she escaped its notice (Helv. 19.6).

Escaping notice appears to have been a consummate virtue. Cato, mouthpiece

of traditional Roman values, is reported by Livy to have declared that it was

25 We are reminded of the list of womanly virtues found in 1 Peter 3.

26 For usual age at marriage among the elite classes, see Osiek and MacDonald, A Woman’s
Place, 146; Gardner, Women in Roman Law, 38-41.
220 Nigh Hogan

inappropriate not only for women to appear in public, but even to think about
measures discussed in the Forum!27 The debate over the appropriate visibility
for elite women fits into what Kristina Milnor describes as a peculiar obses-
sion of the Augustan age, “an overriding concern with feminine virtue and its
locations, an extremely public discussion of the private sphere, a discourse
which brought women out into public view even as it described how little they
belonged there.”28 Ironically, Seneca’s praise of his aunt’s desire for privacy
transforms her into a publicly acclaimed figure.
This paragon is not a shrinking violet, however. She supported Seneca’s
campaign for the quaestorship, he says, conquering her own shyness to en-
courage him. Perhaps she held dinner parties for him? We are not told. More-
over, on a sea voyage which encountered a fierce storm, her husband died, but
she brought his body safely to shore for a proper burial in spite of shipwreck.
Again, we are not told the details of just how she accomplished this. All we
know is that “when her ship had now lost its rigging” she clung to her lifeless
husband and found a way to bring his body to shore. Seneca challenges his
mother: “You are obliged to display a bravery that matches hers,” in the face of
his exile (Helv. 19.7).
Having examined Seneca’s comments, primarily in his consolations to Mar-
cia and Helvia, we can draw some conclusions regarding his understanding
of women. Seneca appears to accept the general opinion that women have
weaker minds than men, and he considers this weakness a “vice” (vitium, Marc.
1.1). We see his use of this conventional belief in his Phaedra. Because of this
weakness, women were expected to be uncontrolled in grieving. Some women,
however, were able to overcome such frailty, in Seneca’s opinion. In fact, he
states that women possessed the capacity to be as energetic and noble, to en-
dure pain and toil, and to be as virtuous and courageous as men, even if the
primary purpose of their virtue was to provide an example for men.29
For Seneca, women in the family are a locus of tenderness and affection.
Spending time with them, discussing their mutual studies, talking informally,
or simply joking around, can be a source of great pleasure. Seneca supports a
good education for women in his social class. According to him, women can
enjoy study and can profit by learning the liberal arts and philosophy.

27 Milnor, Gender, Domesticity, and the Age of Augustus, 165.

28 Ibid., 4.
29 Wilcox has pointed out the implication in Seneca’s letters to Marcia and Helvia that a
woman’s virtuous behaviour was ideally designed to produce virtus in others by “repro-
ducing, supporting, and inspiring men” (“Exemplary Grief,” 81).
Paul and Seneca on Women 221

Seneca observes that women are denied the opportunity to attain political
office, and so they may fear that a lack of influence threatens their security. As
a result they turn to their husbands or sons for protection. He approves, how-
ever, of those who do not try to exploit the positions of their male relatives.
He points out that a woman’s behaviour reflects on her family’s honour. In
praising his mother and aunt, he identifies the elements that define a woman
of virtue: she is faithful to her husband, is modest both in dress and deport-
ment, takes pride in child-bearing and in the number of her children, prefers a
simple appearance without cosmetics or costly jewellery, and is not avaricious
for either possessions or wealth. In short, Seneca admires a woman of ancient
virtue, but one who has a modern education which develops that nobility of
mind that enables her to be an excellent companion. He is fortunate in some
of the women of his own family, who meet these ideals, and he freely expresses
his appreciation of them.

3 Paul on Women

3.1 Galatians
It is time to turn our attention to another significant school of thought in
the first century, namely Christianity, and to its pre-eminent proponent, the
apostle Paul. Probably the most dramatic statement Paul makes about women
is found in Gal 3:28: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed
yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave
or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ
The question of what Paul means in declaring that “there is no longer male
and female” has been fodder for scholars for centuries.30 It is clear that his
focus in this passage is the transformation wrought by baptism, and indeed
his entire focus in the letter to the Galatians is to convince his hearers that
as followers of Jesus Christ they are no longer defined by the ethnic group
into which they were born. Basically, as Gentiles they are no longer forced to
become Jews in order to attain the promise of God made to his chosen people.
Christ has changed that completely.

30 For a survey of modern scholarship on the question as well as the interpretation history
of this phrase in the first four centuries, see Pauline Nigh Hogan, “No Longer Male and
Female”: Interpreting Galatians 3:28 in Early Christianity (LNTS 380; London: T&T Clark,
222 Nigh Hogan

Paul, however, goes further than “no longer Jew or Greek” in this passage.
He extends his proclamation of transformation to status markers: “There is no
longer slave or free.” Then, incredibly, he further extends the promise of trans-
formation: “There is no longer male and female.” Paul appears to be shaking
one of the pillars of Greco-Roman culture, the division of society into male
and female roles. There is disagreement over just how far Paul intended this
erasure of division to be taken. Many find it convincing to argue that Paul was
stating a position of equality for all before God, but had no intention of in-
stigating any change in the accepted social roles.31 Others argue that this pas-
sage states that in Christ the major indicators of social position in the ancient
world were abolished.32 Some see in this verse a reference to primal androg-
yny;33 others read it as calling for celibacy;34 some scholars interpret it as a call
for the end of patriarchal marriage among Christians, thus freeing women to
pursue missions for the church outside the home, such as we see mentioned
in some of Paul’s other letters.35
Paul quoted this passage, apparently from an already-existing baptismal
liturgy,36 without further elaborating on its meaning, so we have to come to
our own conclusions. It seems apparent from the whole letter to the Galatians
that Paul was concerned not solely with spiritual standing but with social prac-
tice. His criticism of Peter’s actions in refusing to continue eating with Gentiles
(2:11-14) applies to social inclusion. Another Pauline letter also indicates Paul’s
concern with eradicating social distinctions: in the letter to Philemon, Paul
asks a master to accept the return of a runaway slave, Onesimus, and to treat
him as “more than a slave, a beloved brother . . . both in the flesh and in the
Lord” (16). It seems that Paul is asking for a relationship of social equality
(“a brother in the flesh”) as well as spiritual equality (“and in the Lord”). Thus,
while Paul was citing a baptismal liturgical phrase that may have meant several

31 Albrecht Oepke, Der Brief des Paulus an die Galater (THKNT 99; Berlin: Evangelische Ver-
lagsanstalt, 1964), 90.
32 Hans Dieter Betz, Galatians: A Commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Churches of Galatia
(Hermeneia; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979), 190.
33 Wayne Meeks, “The Image of the Androgyne: Some Uses of a Symbol in Earliest Chris-
tianity,” HR 13.1 (1973): 165-208.
34 Lone Fatum, “Image of God and Glory of Man: Women in the Pauline Congregations,” in
The Image of God: Gender Models in Judaeo-Christian Tradition (Oslo: Solum Forlag, 1991,
Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995), 50-133.
35 Elisabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of
Christian Origins (New York: Crossroad, 1998), 211-18.
36 For understanding Gal 3:28 as a baptismal liturgy, see J. Louis Martyn, Galatians (AB 33A;
New York: Doubleday, 1997), 373-383; Betz, Galatians, 181-85.
Paul and Seneca on Women 223

things to those who heard it at baptism, we can argue that Paul understood it
to apply to social relationships as well as to spiritual ones.

3.2 1 Corinthians
Paul’s hostility to social distinctions and his insistence on equality among
Christians is made very clear in his first letter to the Corinthians. He deplores
the divisions within the church in Corinth, some based on perceived spiritual
gifts, some on the status of the convert’s teacher, and some based on wealth.
He begs them to think of themselves as one family: “In Christ Jesus I became
your father through the gospel” (4:15), and then develops the metaphor of the
body, to which all belong:

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members
of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the
one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or
free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. (1 Cor 12:12-13)

Paul places this citation, of the baptismal formula that was basic to the con-
version experience of everyone in his audience, at the end of his argument
against giving different status to those with the more highly esteemed spiri-
tual gifts. So, while in Galatians there were to be no distinctions based on race,
freedom, or gender, here he adds charismatic gifts to the list.
Earlier, in chapter 11, Paul rebuked those who did not share equally in the
love feast with those who had less: “Do you show contempt for the church of
God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should
I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you!” (11:22). Ross Kraemer

Customarily, the hosts of a Greco-Roman banquet provided better food

and wine for some guests than for others, expressing and reinforcing so-
cial stratification. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul berates them for
using [the Lord’s Supper] as an opportunity to express Greco-Roman sta-
tus distinctions inappropriate for a community that constitutes, in Paul’s
eyes, the body of Christ.37

Paul appears to be standing firmly on the platform of radical equality among

all Christians.

37 Ross S. Kraemer, Her Share of the Blessings: Women’s Religions among Pagans, Jews, and
Christians in the Greco-Roman World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 142.
224 Nigh Hogan

Note, however, that in this reiteration of the baptismal formula first found
in Gal 3:28, the reference to male and female is lacking. This has provoked a
great deal of speculation. One of the most interesting theories to emerge is
that of Antoinette Wire.38 She argues that Paul’s rhetoric in this letter reveals a
conflict in Corinth over influence. Particularly worrisome to Paul is the power
wielded by a group of women who took the promise contained in their origi-
nal teaching (and implied in the baptismal formula of Gal 3:28) literally; they
had become a new creation. Wire suggests that these women no longer ac-
cepted the secondary status of women common to their society, and instead
conducted their lives as independent persons, emancipated from male con-
trol, whether single or married. In addition, according to Wire, they used the
practice of certain spiritual gifts to assert authority in the congregation.
Wire’s interpretation may help to explain the puzzling discussion of head
coverings in chapter 11. After teaching, perhaps on his first mission trip, that
there is no longer male and female in Christ, in chapter 11 Paul seems to be
attempting to re-establish a hierarchy in which male authority subordinates
women. He states: “Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the
head of his wife” (11:3). He goes further: “A man ought not to have his head
veiled, since he is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection
of man” (11:7). Although this statement remains confusing to many scholars,39
myself included, Bruce Winter has shed some light by explaining the symbol-
ism of veiling for married women.40 According to Winter, the removal of a
matron’s veil in public was an admission of sexual immorality. If Wire is right,
these women removed their veils to signal their equality with men. The mes-
sage received by others, however, was that they were promiscuous. The result
was a scandal. Paul’s message appears to be that the reputation of the Chris-
tian community was more important than the women’s freedom.41
Paul’s attempt to re-instate the authority of husbands over wives, however,
by invoking the male as image of God while the female is only his reflection, is

38 Antoinette Clark Wire, The Corinthian Women Prophets: A Reconstruction through Paul’s
Rhetoric (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990).
39 Many commentators note the difficulty in following Paul’s argument here. See, for exam-
ple, Hans Conzelmann, 1 Corinthians (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975), 182; Jouette M. Bassler,
“1 Corinthians,” in Women’s Bible Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1998),
40 Winter, Roman Wives, 77-96.
41 We can see a parallel with the life of Seneca’s aunt, who voluntarily restricted her interac-
tions with the outside world in order to support her husband’s political reputation (Helv.
Paul and Seneca on Women 225

especially problematic in view of his discussion of marriage duties in chapter

7 of this letter. Here, Paul carefully gives equal attention to the responsibili-
ties of husbands and wives in marriage. Pagels considers the duties laid out
“astonishingly egalitarian” for a Greco-Roman treatise.42 While most Greeks
and Romans would have agreed that “the wife does not have authority over
her own body, but the husband does,” they would have been surprised to hear
that “the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife
does” (7:4).43 Moreover, in this chapter Paul supports those, women as well as
men, who wish to remain unmarried. This had the potential of giving women a
much freer hand in deciding their own destiny. It also ran against the accepted
wisdom that it was the duty of young persons to marry and reproduce in order
to maintain the strength of their societies. As Peter Brown observes:

The ancient city expected its citizens to expend a requisite proportion

of their energy begetting and rearing legitimate children to replace the
dead. Whether through conscious legislation, such as that of Emperor
Augustus, which penalized bachelors and rewarded families for produc-
ing children, or simply through the unquestioned weight of habit, young
men and women were discreetly mobilized to use their bodies for repro-

Paul markedly comments that the propriety of remaining unmarried is

his personal opinion (7:25). It was a decidedly unconventional point of
What are we to make of Paul’s discussion of women in 1 Corinthians? I be-
lieve that Paul was attempting to re-establish a sense of order and public pro-
priety in a situation that had become problematic because of the literal inter-
pretation of “no longer male and female.” His real opinion about the equality

42 Elaine Pagels, “Paul and Women: A Response to a Recent Discussion,” JAAR 42 (1974): 541.
43 Note a parallel with Seneca, in opposing the double standard of his day: “You know that
a man does wrong in requiring chastity of his wife while he himself is intriguing the
wives of other men” (Ep. 94.26), as noted in Joseph R. Dodson, “Ethical Exhortations in
the Letter to the Hebrews and the Writings of Seneca,” in Studies in Hebrews (ed. David
Moffitt and Eric Mason; WUNT II; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, forthcoming).
44 Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Chris-
tianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 6.
45 Margaret MacDonald, Early Christian Women and Pagan Opinion: The Power of the Hyster-
ical Woman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 10; Fantham et al., Women in
the Classical World, 294.
226 Nigh Hogan

of male and female, based on his comments in chapter 7 of this letter, appears
unchanged from the provocative statement he quoted in Gal 3:28. He felt the
need, however, to calm the dissension raised by competing claims of author-
ity, and by behaviour meant to proclaim a new creation, but which instead
was causing scandal. This may explain why the “male and female” part of the
baptismal formula is omitted.
There is an unresolved debate over the authenticity of the famous pas-
sage in 1 Cor 14:34-35, which declares that women should be subordinate
and that it is shameful for them to speak in church. It is possible that Paul’s
meaning is unclear to us without the cultural context. It is also possible that,
in his eagerness to make his point, he contradicts himself. I tend to agree
with those who consider the passage a later interpolation, based on the dif-
ficulty of squaring it with Paul’s words in chapter 11 instructing women how
to prophesy in church, and with his commendations of women evangelists
and deacons in Romans 16. We will thus leave that passage out of this discus-

3.3 Romans
In Romans 16, the conclusion of Paul’s letter to Christians in the capital, he
sends greetings to those Christians living in Rome with whom he has a per-
sonal acquaintance. These greetings offer perhaps our best opportunity to es-
tablish Paul’s attitude toward women working for the church in unconven-
tional roles. First he commends Phoebe, who is apparently making her first
visit to Rome, and probably is the bearer of this letter. Paul introduces her as a
deacon of the church in Cenchreae, and also states that she has been a patron
of many, including Paul himself. The title “deacon” (διάκονος) suggests “a recog-
nized ministry . . . or position of responsibility within the congregation.”47 The
fact that Paul also recognizes Phoebe as a patron (προστάτις) of many indicates
that she was a woman of means and influence, which she used on behalf of
the nascent Christian movement.
The next person mentioned in the list is Prisca, along with Aquila, her
husband (16:3-4). Paul calls them his συνεργοί (i.e., fellow missionaries), who
risked their necks for him, and for whom he gives thanks, along with all the
churches of the Gentiles. This is a high commendation for this couple, and

46 We will also omit consideration of Colossians, Ephesians, and the Pastoral Epistles, as
rich as these are in their discussion of women’s roles, because scholarly opinion on their
authorship suggests that these epistles are deutero-Pauline.
47 James Dunn, Romans 9-16 (WBC 38; Dallas: Word Books, 1988), 886-87.
Paul and Seneca on Women 227

scholars have noted that Prisca’s name is mentioned first. It may indicate that
she is better-known as a missionary, or has greater influence or perhaps in-
herited more wealth than her husband. The couple is always mentioned to-
gether, and in both Romans and 1 Corinthians the church in their house is
mentioned. The title συνεργοί is used regularly by Paul to define “one who
labours with [him] as commissioned by God at the shared work of mission
Paul also greets Mary, “who has worked very hard among you” (16:6), al-
though her duties for the church are left unspecified. He greets Andronicus
and Junia, his relatives, who shared imprisonment with him, who are “promi-
nent among the apostles,” and who were “in Christ before I was” (16:7). This is
all we know about this intriguing couple, but the fact that Paul not only gives
the title “apostle” to Junia, but calls her “prominent among the apostles,” indi-
cates that they may have been among those commissioned by the risen Lord
(1 Cor 15:6). The career of Junia in biblical scholarship is one of great interest.49
It is now accepted by most scholars that Paul did, indeed, intend to acknowl-
edge a woman as an apostle.50 Chrysostom observed: “How great the wisdom
of this woman must have been that she was even deemed worthy of the title
of apostle” (Hom. Rom. 31.2).
In addition to these, Paul greets as “workers in the Lord” Tryphaena,
Tryphosa, and Persis. He makes no distinction between the work these women
do for the church and that of the men he also acknowledges. It is reasonable to
conclude, from the titles he gives these women, and from the warm apprecia-
tion he expresses for their work, that Paul welcomed and respected women in
leadership roles in the congregations with which he worked. At no point does
Paul refer to emotional fragility or weakness of mind limiting what women
could do.
Let us now draw what conclusions we can reach about Paul’s understanding
of women. It is not quite as straightforward a task as it was for Seneca. Seneca
was considerate enough of our needs to include several passages delineating
what he approved and disapproved in the conduct of the women he knew.
Paul, on the other hand, forces us to look for clues in the midst of arguments
whose focus is something other than the virtues or vices peculiar to women.

48 Dunn, Romans, 892.

49 For a summary of the discussion and some speculation as to Junia’s identity, see Winter,
Roman Wives, 200-04.
50 Eldon Jay Epp, Junia: The First Woman Apostle (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005), contra M.H.
Burer and D.B. Wallace, “Was Junia Really an Apostle? A Re-examination of Rom 16:7,”
NTS 47 (2001): 76-91.
228 Nigh Hogan

Even in passages aimed at correcting the improper behaviours of women, we

are left a little unclear as to Paul’s ultimate position.
We can come to some conclusions with a fair degree of confidence. First,
and, I would argue, fundamental to Paul’s understanding of the roles of women
and men in Christianity, is that baptism marks a transformed existence, so
that former identities are subsumed in a new creation, which makes all be-
lievers one in Christ. For Paul, this new creation meant that all Christians
were equal in status among themselves, regardless of what status they had
on the streets or in the forum. Each deserved equal respect and equal con-
sideration within the church. This extended to women as well as men; thus,
in the Christian assemblies, women as well as men had the right to pray and
In marriage, as Paul explains in 1 Cor 7, both husbands and wives owed each
other equal consideration. Most surprising, perhaps, was Paul’s indication that
he saw no problem with young people refusing to marry and to procreate. Al-
though propriety in public indicated that women should accede to accepted
patterns of deference to men, and of modesty in dress and behaviour, it did
not mean that the destiny of women lay only within the home. Rather, Paul
recognizes the value of the work done for the church by women. This work
involved missionary travel (Prisca), leadership in the local assembly (Phoebe),
evangelizing (Junia) to the point where hostility might result in arrest, hosting
Christian assemblies in one’s home (Prisca), and other work that is unspeci-
fied. Paul gives these women mentioned in Romans 16 equal titles and equal
expressions of appreciation for their contributions as he does to men. There-
fore we can only conclude that Paul respected the intelligence, courage, and
leadership capabilities of certain women whom he was happy to consider co-
workers in his missionary endeavour.

4 Seneca and Paul Discussing Women

Seneca would agree with Paul that women can make significant contributions
to society. He noted in the Ad Marciam the valuable service done for Roman lit-
erature and posterity in Marcia’s preserving the historical works of her father,
Cordus. Seneca also gave high praise to the courage and resolution displayed
by his aunt in ensuring that her husband’s body was brought safely to land
from a shipwreck. Both these actions, however, can be seen as a woman’s ef-
fort to preserve the honour of male relatives. Neither woman trespasses into
the public realm. In fact Seneca explicitly praises the fact that his aunt and
uncle refused to bring political issues into their home, and he commends
Paul and Seneca on Women 229

his mother for not exploiting the public status of her sons for her own ben-
The best women (like his perfectissima aunt) were unnoticed by the general
crowd. If spoken of at all, only their virtues were mentioned. They accepted
their roles as faithful wives, they were proud of bearing children, they did not
dress or adorn themselves so as to attract any attention. Such women could
be well-educated, but their wisdom was known and appreciated by their own
families, not flaunted so as to attract any public notice. There is no question
that Seneca appreciated the intelligence and wit of women, but his published
works, at least, suggest that he considered those attributes best celebrated
within the walls of the family home. We might conclude that Seneca is closer
to 1 Timothy 2 and to Ephesians 5 than to Paul’s undisputed letters.
Seneca, in concert with other Stoic writers, would no doubt agree with
the thrust of the baptismal formula, that in theory there is no basic differ-
ence in potential or in human value between men and women, or between
slave and free, for that matter.52 However, in matters of public versus private
roles, Seneca praised the women who exhibited their allegiance to the “ancient
virtues” that made their family their primary concern. Paul, on the other hand,
while perhaps paying some lip service to this ideal (in 1 Cor 11), found himself
working with too many women who had proved themselves essential to the
Christian missionary effort to want to send them home.
Paul would have whole-heartedly agreed with Seneca that women could ex-
hibit all the courage and intelligence of men. He would go further, however, in
arguing that they could also take leadership roles in spheres traditionally con-
sidered male.53 His praise of Phoebe indicates that he approved of her work
as a deacon of the church in Cenchreae, and that he was confident enough in

51 Milnor underlines the horror among elite Romans at the chaos of the triumviral period
preceding Augustus’ establishment of the principate, in that proscriptions ruined fami-
lies, thus destroying the boundary between politics and domestic life (Milnor, “Gender,
Domesticity,” 223).
52 We have referred to Clement’s comments on women’s virtue earlier. Seneca states in De
beneficiis that “it is a mistake to imagine that slavery pervades a man’s whole being; the
better part of him is exempt from it . . . it is only the body which misfortune hands over to
a master” (Ben. 3.20, trans. Glancy). Philo, in his treatise Every Good Man is Free, argues,
“Let us . . . refuse to ascribe citizenship or freedom . . . or slavery . . . but dismissing ques-
tions of race and certificates of ownership and bodily matters in general, study the nature
of the soul” (Prob. 22. 158, trans. Colson).
53 For a discussion of the evidence that Greco-Roman women in general often did in fact
act in the public sphere in ways traditionally considered male, see Gardner, Women in
Roman Law, 233-41; Fantham et al., Women in the Classical World, 271-73, 331-41, 360-68.
230 Nigh Hogan

her abilities to send her as his representative to Rome. His praise and acknowl-
edgement of Prisca, both in Rom 16:3 and 1 Cor 16:19, mention her courage
and hospitality. Prisca is specifically commended for hosting house churches
both in Corinth and Rome, which would have included persons of all classes,
in contrast to Seneca’s aunt, who refused to admit any provincials into her
home while in Egypt. There is no mention, in the undisputed letters of Paul, of
female weakness limiting a woman’s role.
Paul would also find fault with Seneca’s stress on the family as the primary
focus of a virtuous woman’s life. For Paul, the work of the kingdom meant that
women had many other options. Paul clearly states his preference for unmar-
ried women and widows to remain devoted to the Lord’s work (1 Cor 7:40),54
while Seneca would have found a woman’s concern for pleasing her husband
to be her highest virtue. The idea that a proper young woman would choose
not to marry at all, we can assume would have been distasteful to Seneca.
Had Paul and Seneca ever met, they would have agreed that they had known
some remarkable women. Seneca could have spoken of the learning of Mar-
cia, and of his mother’s studies in philosophy. Paul could have brought Prisca’s
theological understanding into the picture. Both could have recounted tales
of exemplary courage: Seneca concerning his aunt’s actions in preserving her
husband’s remains during a shipwreck, while Paul could tell stories of Prisca
risking her neck for him, and the time Junia spent in prison. Both would agree
that women could do far more than suggested by the conventional image of
private creatures needing protection. They would also agree on the power of
transformative experience to erase gender divides. For Seneca, the study of
philosophy opened male virtue, which included courage and rationality, to
women, and indeed to slaves, as much as to elite men. For Paul, baptism dis-
solved the divide that separated male and female accomplishment, and erased
the social distinctions inherent in Greco-Roman life.
Where they would probably disagree would be concerning the roles taken
on by many early Christian women. Seneca, we can guess, would find the
prospect of women praying and prophesying in mixed company to be ques-
tionable, if not scandalous.55 He would have been aware of women who were
patrons, but might have found the encouragement Paul gave to Phoebe and
Prisca to be unwise. The thought of women, or indeed elite men welcoming

54 Paul’s expectation of the imminent parousia of course influences his attitude. Without
that factor, Paul’s preference for celibacy might have been different.
55 For an excellent examination of the issue of Christian women and pagan response to
their activities, see MacDonald, Early Christian Women and Pagan Opinion.
Paul and Seneca on Women 231

people of all classes into their home for worship, and into the dining room
for the communal meal, would have offended Seneca’s sense of propriety. We
can only assume he would have been incredulous at the idea that all must be
served alike.
While he was still recovering from this outlandish idea, Paul might have
reminded Seneca that he really did go on too long about female weakness
of mind. Paul could have provided him with plentiful examples of women,
from all classes, educated and uneducated, whose strength of character was
contributing to the phenomenal growth of the Christian movement. Paul, to
be sure, would suggest that it was time Seneca dropped that theme from his
repertoire altogether.
Paul and Seneca on the Body
Michelle Lee-Barnewall

1 Introduction

The image of the body was commonly employed in ancient political literature
to describe a group or state and could be used for various purposes, such as to
combat factionalism.1 Seneca highlights the unity of humanity as one body as
the basis for his social ethics in order to meet two needs in society: coopera-
tion between persons and placing the common good ahead of personal gain.
In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul calls the Corinthians the body of Christ in relation
to his instructions on manifestations of the Spirit. Writing to an unruly con-
gregation which appears to be competing against each other over these gifts,
he identifies them as a body, calling them to exercise their gifts in love for the
benefit of the whole.
For both Paul and Seneca the existence of a whole as a bodily unity carries
profound ethical implications. One’s existence as a member of the body is a
primary determinant for action. Thus their treatment of this subject provides
a window for examining how they conceived of the significance of the corpo-
rate body, especially in the formulation of their social ethics. In this essay we
will examine Paul and Seneca individually, and then place them in an imagi-
nary dialogue in order to examine their similarities and dissimilarities in this

2 Seneca and the Bodily Unity of Humanity

For Seneca, the inherent unity of humanity with each other and with the gods,
specifically as a body,2 provided the foundational principle for social ethics. In
Ep. 95, he states,

1 See the summary on this topic in Margaret M. Mitchell, Paul and the Rhetoric of Reconciliation
(Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991), 157.
2 We can understand Seneca’s views in the larger context of Stoic thought. The idea of “body”
was critical to the Stoics’ understanding of reality, as they believed that only bodies are “exis-
tents” or ὄντα (e.g., Plutarch, Comm. not. 1073E). As A.A. Long states, their “general conceptual
framework . . . denies that anything can exist which is not a body or the state of a body” (Soul
and Body in Stoicism [Berkeley: Center for Hermeneutical Studies, 1980], 3). There were sev-

© Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2017 | DOI 10.1163/9789004341364 012

Paul and Seneca on the Body 233

Then comes the second problem – how to deal with men. What is our
purpose? What precepts do we offer? . . . Meantime, I can lay down for
mankind a rule [formulam], in short compass, for our duties in human
relationships: all that you behold, that which comprises both god and
man, is one [unum] – we are the parts [membra] of one great body [cor-
poris]. Nature produced us related to one another, since she created us
from the same source and to the same end. She engendered in us mu-
tual affection, and made us prone to friendships. She established fair-
ness and justice; according to her ruling, it is more wretched to com-
mit than to suffer injury. Through her orders, let our hands be ready for
all that needs to be helped. Let this verse be in your heart and on your

I am a man; and nothing in man’s lot

Do I deem foreign to me.

Let us possess things in common; for birth is ours in common. Our rela-
tions with one another are like a stone arch, which would collapse if the
stones did not mutually support each other, and which is upheld in this
very way. (Ep. 95.51-53)3

In dealing with the question of what specific precepts to offer, Seneca con-
cludes that before he can give specific instructions on “how to deal with men,”

eral definitions for “body.” One was that which had three dimensions: length, width, and
depth (Sextus Empiricus, Math. 10.7; Diogenes Laertius, Vit. phil. 7.135; Philo, Opif. 36 [SVF
2.358]; Plotinus, Enn. 6.1.26 [SVF 2.315]; Galen, de qualitatibus incorporeis 10 [SVF 2.381]). An-
other was that which is capable of acting or being acted upon (Diogenes Laertius, Vit. phil.
7.56 [SVF 2.140]; Aëtius, Plac. 4.20.2 [SVF 2.387]; Quod facit, corpus est, Seneca, Ep. 106.4 [SVF
3.84]; cf. also Cicero, Acad. 1.39 [SVF 1.90]; Sextus Empiricus, Math. 8.263 [SVF 2.363], 9.211
[SVF 2.341]; Plutarch, Comm. not. 1084A).
Seneca demonstrates the varied sense in which the term could be understood when he says,
“The goods of the body are bodily [Quae corporis bona sunt, corpora sunt]; so therefore must
the goods of the soul. For the soul, too, is corporeal [corpus]” (Ep. 106.4-5). Seneca sees a dis-
tinction between one meaning of the term as the body that is distinct from the soul, and one
referring to the quality of “bodiliness” which applies to both soul and “body.” Apparently,
he not only felt free to use the same word in two different ways in one sentence but also
assumed that his audience would be able to make the distinction.
3 All texts and translations of non-biblical texts are taken from the Loeb Classical Library (LCL)
unless otherwise indicated.
234 Lee-Barnewall

he must first give a general “rule” (formula) based upon his conception of hu-
man nature.4
Seneca’s understanding of human nature is that the gods and humanity are
a unity, that is, they are “one” (unum). The principle of oneness is expressed by
being a body (corpus), and so he states, “We are the parts of one great body.”
The individual is seen in relationship to the entire body, and so the larger
whole provides the context for understanding precepts related to individuals.
Thus Seneca explains that Nature has produced the body so that all the
parts are related to one another because they share a common source and a
common end. As a result, ethical considerations are based upon maintaining
this oneness, and so preserving the bond among people takes priority over
individual concerns.5 For example, one of the most grievous acts one could
commit is to harm another member. Because of the need to consider the good
of the whole, it is more desirable to suffer injury than to harm a fellow member
of the body. In addition, Seneca concludes by explaining that one must be
ready to help in every situation because nothing is “foreign” to a person who
belongs to the body. The well-being of the body depends upon the mutual
support of the members, another appeal for the preservation of the whole as
the primary ethical consideration.
Except for the statement about possessing things in common, the passage
does not give specific precepts, but rather describes the characteristics of this
unity. It is a unity exemplified by friendship, justice, and mutual support. The
function of the passage is not to prescribe specific actions at this point, as
much as to support Seneca’s argument for oneness as the foundational prin-
ciple for social ethics by examining the characteristics and types of behavior

4 “[The Stoics] hold that we do not choose the latter – health, wealth, honoring parents, and
so forth – for themselves, but rather because the particular choice of one in certain circum-
stances is right in relation to a whole theory of human and universal nature” (I.G. Kidd,
“Moral Actions and Rules in Stoic Ethics,” in The Stoics [ed. John M. Rist; Berkeley: University
of California Press, 1978], 256).
5 Similarly, Arthur Bodson states that the later Stoics try to situate humans in the universe
and to define their position by relationship to the divinity and one’s fellow beings. This
subsequently dictates a system of ethics which comports with this vision (La morale sociale
des derniers Stoïciens, Sénèque, Epictète et Marc Aurèle [Paris: Bibliothèque de la Faculté de
Philosophie et Lettres de l’Université de Liège, 1967], 16). In particular, one’s existence as
part of a bodily unity defines specific ethical precepts. “Les devoirs sont multiples, variés,
les préceptes en nombre infini, mais tous convergent vers une seule idée: nous sommes
contioyens des dieux et de tous nos semblables, nous sommes des membres du corps formé
par les intelligences raisonnables, nous sommes les frères de nos semblables” (morale sociale,
Paul and Seneca on the Body 235

that characterize bodily unity. Seneca believes that human society should be
characterized by maintaining the order established by nature. He seeks to get
people to recognize the essence of their existence, which is a social one, and
so the implications. Since Nature created people as a unity, people should care
for one another and treat each other fairly.
However, it was not just unity, but the type of unity present that impacted
bodily existence. The implications of Seneca’s statement can be seen in light of
the general Stoic understanding of bodily unity. The Stoics identified three dif-
ferent kinds of bodies according to the type of unity that was present: (1) bod-
ies composed of separated parts which are isolated and exist by themselves,
an example of this kind being an army; (2) bodies composed of contiguous
or adjacent parts which combine to form one main structure, such as a house
or ship; and (3) unified bodies, as in living creatures.6 What allowed the third
type to be called “unified” bodies was the presence of a pervasive spirit (itself
a body) which held all of the parts together.7 Thus, “Bodies are called uni-
fied bodies [σώματα ἡνωμένα] if they are governed by a single hexis, such as
stone and wood, whereby hexis is the cohesive pneuma of the body [πνεῦμα
σώματος συνεκτικόν].”8 The cosmos was an example of a “unified body” through

6 Plutarch explains, “In about the same way, the marriage of a couple in love with each other
is an intimate union; that of those who marry for dowry or children is of persons joined
together: and that of those who merely sleep in the same bed is of separate persons who
may be regarded as cohabitating, but not really living together” (Conj. praec. 142E-143A [SVF
2.366]). Plutarch appears to be reflecting a view of Roman Stoicism in which the traditional
distinctions between the three “bodies” are applied more loosely. A key characteristic of
organic bodies is extended to social bodies. Thus Seneca can apply the concept to the Roman
state because Nero is the spiritus of the body (Clem. 1.3.1-5.3).
7 Troels Engberg-Pedersen argues that Paul also views the Spirit as a physical entity in the
present age, and not just in relation to 1 Cor 15 and the resurrected body (Cosmology and Self
in the Apostle Paul [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010], see esp. 40-75).
8 Achilles, Isagoge 14 (SVF 2.368), translation by S. Sambursky, Physics of the Stoics (Westport:
Greenwood Press, 1959), 118-19. In Cicero’s De natura deorum, Balbus says that there could
be no connections among the processes and things of the physical world “were they not
maintained in unison by a single divine and all-pervading spirit [spiritu]” (2.19). The Stoic
Manilius explicitly states the work of the spirit as making the universe a living “body”: “The
entire universe is alive in the mutual concord of its elements . . . since a single spirit [spiritus
unus] dwells in all its parts and . . . shapes it like a living creature [corpusque animale figuret]”
(Manilius, Astronomica 2.63-68). He describes the work of spirit in unifying the body of the
This fabric which forms the body [corpore] of the boundless universe, together with its
members [membraque] composed of nature’s diverse elements, air and fire, earth and
236 Lee-Barnewall

the presence of a spirit which united all of the parts.9 In Ad Helviam, Seneca
speaks of a “divine Spirit [spiritus] pervading all things from the smallest to
the greatest with uniform energy” (8.3). In De Clementia, in which he identifies
Rome as the body of Nero, he says that Rome is held together by Nero’s spiritus,
“For he is the bond by which the commonwealth is united, the breath of life
[spiritus vitalis] which these many thousands draw” (1.4.1).
Because of the work of the spirit, unified bodies exhibited “sympathy,”
which can be defined as “the interaction and affinity of different parts of a
unified structure.”10 The parts would “sympathize” (συμπάσχει) with each other
so that all the members of the body would be affected by what happened to
an individual part. Thus Sextus Empiricus says, “In the case of unified bodies
there exists a certain ‘sympathy’ [συμπάθεια], since when the finger is cut, the
whole body shares in its condition.”11 This is in contrast to a non-unified body,
such as an army, in which a single surviving soldier would not be said to have
suffered through transmission even if the rest of his company were killed.12
Cicero explains the connections between sympathy and the unifying work of
the spirit:

Consider the sympathetic agreement, interconnexion and affinity of

things. . . . [The] processes and . . . musical harmony of all the parts of
the world assuredly could not go on were they not maintained in unison
by a single divine all-pervading spirit [uno divino et continuato spiritu].
(Nat. d. 2.19)

level sea, is ruled by the force of a divine spirit [animae divinae]; by sacred dispen-
sation the deity brings harmony and governs with hidden purpose, arranging mutual
bonds between all parts, so that each may furnish and receive another’s strength and
that the whole may stand fast in kinship despite its variety of forms. (Manilius,
Astronomica 1.247-54)
He speaks of the “divine spirit,” which he also identifies with god, as forming the essence
of the universe, which was a body. The work of the spirit is to create bonds among the
diverse elements of the universe so that they may be brought into a harmony.
9 Chrysippus seems to have developed the doctrine of the cosmic pneuma (Alexander of
Aphrodisias, Mixt. 223.25, 224.14; Plutarch, Comm. not. 1085C-D; Stoic. rep. 1053F, 1054A).
See the discussion in Michael Lapidge, “Stoic Cosmology,” in The Stoics (ed. John M. Rist;
Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), 168-76.
10 Sambursky, Physics, 41.
11 Sextus Empiricus, Math. 9.80.
12 “For in the case of bodies formed from conjoined or separate elements the parts do not
‘sympathize’ with one another, since if all the soldiers, say, in an army have perished
(save one) the one who survives is not seen to suffer at all through transmission” (Sextus
Empiricus, Math. 9.80).
Paul and Seneca on the Body 237

The spirit not only unified the various parts, but also created a connection by
which each member had an effect on the whole.13
Similarly, Seneca speaks of the relationships within the body of humanity
that reflect its unified nature. The connection of all the members leads to cer-
tain rights and obligations to one’s fellow human beings, the purpose of which
is to preserve the natural fellowship among humans. For example, the natural
affiliation of humans prohibits their harming one another because to do so
would threaten the whole:

Above all, bear this in mind, that the power of injury is vile and detestable
and most unnatural for man, by whose kindness even fierce beasts are
tamed. . . . To injure one’s country is a crime; consequently, also, to injure
a fellow-citizen – for he is a part of the country, and if we reverence the
whole, the parts are sacred – consequently to injure any man is a crime,
for he is your fellow-citizen in the greater commonwealth. What if the
hands should desire to harm the feet, or the eyes the hands? As all the
members of the body are in harmony one with another because it is
the advantage of the whole that the individual members be unharmed,
so mankind should spare the individual man, because all are born for a
life of fellowship, and society can be kept unharmed only by the mutual
protection and love of its parts. (Ira 2.31.6-8)

To injure a fellow-citizen is “unnatural” because every person is connected to

each other by virtue of their common citizenship. If the “whole” is sacred,
so too are the “parts.” Therefore, one may not injure a fellow-citizen. As men-
tioned above, Seneca states in Ep. 95.52, “it is more wretched to commit than to
suffer injury.” He uses the ontological principle of the unity of humanity, which
is bodily, to argue that society needs to maintain its natural fellowship and this
can only happen if people do not harm each other. Instead, there should be
“mutual protection and love of its parts.” This should happen naturally as peo-
ple recognize their commonality. As Seneca also declares, nature “engendered
in us mutual affection, and made us prone to friendships” (95.52).14

13 Also, “For if the whole material world were not completely grown together, the cosmos
as it is could not be kept together and administered by nature, nor would there exist a
mutual sympathy of its parts; nor could we see and hear if the cosmos were not held
together by one tension and if the pneuma were not cohesive throughout the whole
being” (Cleomedes, De motu circulari corporum caelestium, I.1, translation by Sambursky,
Physics, 128-29 [SVF 2.546]).
14 The concept of οἰκείωσις taught the Stoics that one should take care of what “belonged”
to them. Gisela Striker defines it as “the recognition and appreciation of something as
238 Lee-Barnewall

Since the bodily unity of humanity is the basis for Seneca’s ethical model,
his goal is to preserve this unity. In large part, his social ethics deal with the
duties among humans to preserve this common bond. For Seneca, people do
not form unions for the sake of the “common good” as much as they seek to
preserve the bonds which nature has already created in society. He explains
that the person who has “attained perfect knowledge of what is useful and
essential” is the one who “views the world as the universal home of mankind”
because every person is a social creature and “born for the common good [in
commune]” (Ben. 7.1.7). It is every person’s duty to contribute to the “common
good” by virtue of their participation in this unity of the body.

3 Paul and the Bodily Unity of New Humanity in Christ

Paul also considers bodily unity as a foundation for social ethics.15 In 1 Cor 12,
he calls the Corinthians the body of Christ. The chapter is part of the larger
argument of 1 Cor 12-14, in which Paul instructs the Corinthians on the cor-
rect use of manifestations of the Spirit for the good of the whole rather than
individual benefit.
When Paul speaks of the body of Christ in ch. 12, he has already established
the corporate identity of the believers in Corinth, for example, calling them
“God’s temple” (3:16) and admonishing that “all of you agree and that there be
no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and in the
same judgment” (1:10-12).16 The “body of Christ” presents both a continuation
of this idea and adds additional dimensions to the nature of that oneness. On
the one hand he has already introduced some of the underlying concepts, in-
cluding in regard to the specific imagery of the body. Since their individual
bodies are members of Christ (6:15), they should not be joined with prosti-
tutes. Even before ch. 12 he says that they are one body because they partake
of the one bread (10:17). On the other hand, however, in ch. 12 he more fully

belonging to one” (“The Role of Oikeiosis in Stoic Ethics,” Oxford Studies in Ancient Phi-
losophy 1 [1983]: 143). It implies that a person extends care not merely out of utility, but
because of natural affection.
15 A more complete version of this concept of bodily unity leading to social ethics can be
found in my earlier work: Michelle V. Lee, Paul, the Stoics, and the Body of Christ (SNTSMS
137; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).
16 All biblical quotations, unless otherwise indicated, will be from the English Standard
Version (ESV).
Paul and Seneca on the Body 239

develops the idea of the body of Christ in order to instruct the Corinthians on
the correct use of spiritual gifts.
Paul identifies them in this way to show that they exist as the body of Christ,
in which all are members (12:7, 27), and, as a result, they should use their spir-
itual gifts for the benefit of the whole body (12:7). He introduces the general
topics of unity and diversity by explaining that while there are varieties of gifts,
services, and activities, there is the same Spirit, Lord, and God (12:4-6). He says
that each believer is given a manifestation of the Spirit for what is beneficial,
and then provides a list as an illustration of the variety (12:7-11). After this, he
introduces the body of Christ as that which has many members but is one
body (12:12) and describes the body as a unity in the Spirit which includes all,
whether Jew or Greek, slave or free (12:13).
In the subsequent verses, he specifically describes the unity and diversity
of the body. Every part belongs, no matter what it thinks of itself (12:15-16)
because diversity is a necessary characteristic of the body (12:17-19). Therefore,
a less esteemed part such as the ear cannot say that it does not belong. The
body needs the sense of hearing. Furthermore, the interdependence of the
parts of the body means that all of the parts are needed, and so for example
the seemingly more important head cannot do without the more lowly foot
However, Paul does more than simply describe the functional composition
of the body. He describes relationships in the body as being so intimate that
the members are to have the “same care” for each other (12:25). Indeed they
are so joined together that they feel the joys and pains of all of the other parts.
Thus, “if one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all
rejoice together” (12:26).
In this way Paul uses 1 Cor 12 to describe the unified nature of the com-
munity, a unity which is not merely functional, but as a unity in the Spirit,
is characterized by intimacy. As such it is no coincidence that he follows his
description of the body with his famous hymn to love in ch. 13, thus further de-
scribing the type of caring and self-sacrificial relationships which should exist
in the body.17
As a result, the unity of the body provides the basis for Paul’s specific in-
structions for the use of spiritual gifts in a manner similar to Seneca’s princi-
ples and precepts regarding the body of humanity. Because the believers are so
unified, they must consider the common good. Thus they should value the gifts

17 For the Stoics, love was the highest way of developing relationships in the already unified
body. See Lee, Paul, the Stoics, and the Body of Christ, 181-92.
240 Lee-Barnewall

which benefit the whole rather than the individual. Specifically, this means
they should seek to prophesy, which edifies the church, rather than speak in
tongues, which only edifies the individual unless it is interpreted (14:1-5). Fur-
thermore, their unity is not merely functional, but is an organic unity in which
the members are so interrelated that they feel each other’s joys and sorrows.
The identification of prophecy as the greater gift additionally underscores
the way in which Paul wants them to shift their concern from individual gain
to corporate benefit. Paul tells them to seek the “greater gifts” (12:31), but then
proceeds to identify what is greater as that which contributes to the well-being
of the entire community. Prophecy is the more desired gift since it allows the
person to speak “to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and con-
solation” and “builds up the church.” In contrast, the tongues-speaker “builds
himself up” since “no one understands him” as that person simply “utters mys-
teries in the Spirit” and “speaks not to men but to God” (14:2-4).
Yet, as Dale Martin has argued, it would be likely that tongues would be
considered the higher status gift, since it would have been considered a supe-
rior, heavenly language and so the one naturally desired by the Corinthians.
For example, in the Testament of Job, glossolalia, which is given to Job’s daugh-
ters, is portrayed as the power to speak in angelic languages.18 As a result Paul
is calling the Corinthians to pursue what would commonly be considered the
lesser gift, prophecy, in order to benefit the whole. Paul’s evaluation of the
gifts is also ironic because in saying that prophecy is greater because it uses
both mind and spirit, he is saying that the higher element, the spirit, should
yield to the lower element, the mind.19 In sum, in pursuing the “greater” gift,
the Corinthians themselves must make a personal sacrifice because in order to
benefit the church as a whole, any individual believer would have to be willing
to accept the lesser social status associated with that gift. Thus the body is to
function in love, where each part strives not to gain more honor than another,
but “to be first in honoring” others.20
Such a reversal of status fits with Paul’s general conception of life in the
body of Christ. Earlier in the letter, Paul had exhorted the Corinthians to live
according to the wisdom of God, as particularly seen in the crucifixion of
Christ. Christ’s humiliating death on a cross exemplified human weakness, but

18 Dale Martin, The Corinthian Body (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 88-89; idem,
“Tongues of Angels and Other Status Indicators,” Journal of the American Academy of
Religion 59 (1991): 559-60.
19 Martin, Corinthian Body, 92-103; “Tongues of Angels,” 563-76.
20 E.g., προηγούμενοι “to take the lead,” in Rom 12:10b. Susan Mathew, Women in the Greetings
of Romans 16.1-16 (LNTS 471; London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2013), 134.
Paul and Seneca on the Body 241

was in actuality “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1:24). As the cross
demonstrates the turning upside down of worldly wisdom as related to tradi-
tional understandings of honor and power, the Corinthians should follow this
example of humility (11:1; 4:16). In relation to spiritual gifts, the Corinthians
should be willing to seek the lower status gift of prophecy rather than tongues
in order to benefit the whole body. Indeed prophecy and tongues are not the
only way in which Paul reevaluates status. He overturns conventional concep-
tions of honor and wisdom when he declares that the weaker parts are indis-
pensable, the parts thought “less honorable” are bestowed with greater honor,
and the “unpresentable parts” are treated with greater modesty (12:22-23). Par-
ticipation in the body means contributing to the good of the whole, which in
turn may entail personal sacrifice for the sake of the common good and the
benefit of others.

4 Paul and Seneca in Dialogue

Since both Paul and Seneca use the language of being a “body” to discuss cor-
porate unity and its implications for ethics, setting them in a “dialogue” can
be a fruitful avenue for considering how they conceive of social ethics derived
from such unity and the nature of relationships within the whole. Such a com-
parison will enable us to see points of both similarity and dissimilarity.
Seneca would agree with Paul that humanity does not exist as isolated hu-
man beings, and that our connection with each other leads to certain obliga-
tions and the need to work for the common good. As Seneca says, every person
is a “social creature, begotten for the common good” (Clem. 1.3.2; cf. Ben. 7.1.7).
Furthermore, he would approve of Paul’s understanding that people do not
form bonds to create unity as much as they seek to preserve the bonds which
already exist by their participation in universal humanity by virtue of one’s
common birth.
Seneca would also approve of Paul’s application of the universal body of
Christ (“For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body,” 1 Cor 12:13) to
the specific body of Christ in Corinth (“Now you are the body of Christ,” 12:27).
Such comparisons between the macrocosmic and the microcosmic were com-
mon in antiquity, including among the Stoics.21 For example, Epictetus says

21 I.e., Plato’s comparison between a human being and the state (Resp. 434-35; 441; 462C, D;
544 D, E; 556E; 576C; 557D; 580 D, E; Leg. 628D; 636A; 735D; 829A; 906C; 964D-965A; Tim.
30B; 39E). Others compared the cosmos and the state (Aelius Aristides, Concerning Con-
242 Lee-Barnewall

that the state is a “small copy” of the universal state (Diatr. 2.5.24-28). In a sim-
ilar manner, Seneca says there are “two commonwealths,” the first “a vast and
truly common state, which embraces alike gods and men,” and the second, any
city “that belongs, not to all, but to some particular race of men” (Ot. 4.1).
Paul sees the bodily unity of believers through the Spirit as applicable
specifically to the Corinthian congregation as every part should consider their
membership to the whole, leading to actions which support the common good
and exhibit sympathy for one another. As a result, Paul and Seneca would
likely find common ground in seeing the unity in the Spirit as not merely
functional, but organic, particularly in leading to a unified body. Paul’s char-
acterizations of the parts of the unified body engaging in co-rejoicing and co-
suffering would be fitting and appropriate to Seneca.22
In further discussing human relationships in the body, Paul and Seneca ad-
dress the question of self- and other-oriented interests. On the one hand, both
speak of the need to consider others and not just pursue self-interest. One’s
connection with the whole means self and corporate interests are intertwined,
and so one should be willing even to suffer loss for the sake of another because
it ultimately benefits the self.

And no one can live happily who has regard to himself alone and trans-
forms everything into a question of his own utility; you must live for your
neighbour, if you would live for yourself. This fellowship, maintained
with scrupulous care . . . holds that the human race have [sic] certain
rights in common. . . . (Ep. 48.2-4)

cord 23.77; Dio Chrysosotom, Nicom. 38.11; Conc. Apam. 40.35; see George Perrigo Conger,
Theories of Macrocosms and Microcosms in the History of Philosophy [New York: Russell &
Russell, 1967], 7-8; Eduard Schweizer, “σῶμα, κτλ.,” TDNT 7:1028-32; Martin, Body, 40-41).
22 Another potential area for exploring the relationship between the role of the Spirit in
Seneca and Paul could be the Stoic view of “blending,” or κρᾶσις. The theory of blend-
ing allowed for the cohesiveness of the whole without sacrificing the individual natures
of the constituent parts. As G. Verbeke describes, Chrysippus thought that the πνεῦμα
could cause the universal “sympathy” of the cosmos without resulting in the individual
parts losing their particular natures (L’Évolution de la doctrine de pneuma [Paris: Declée
de Brouwer, 1945], 62-71). Interestingly, not only was the individuality of the elements re-
tained, but the πνεῦμα itself also served as a differentiating force, and this was explained
in terms of its cohesive function. The πνεῦμα provided the cohesion for the unified body,
but as the unified body was itself made of other bodies, the cohesive force in the individ-
ual bodies provided for their distinct qualities. For more on this, see Lee, Paul, the Stoics,
and the Body of Christ, 52-54, 142.
Paul and Seneca on the Body 243

This common connection necessitates that one live in consideration of others,

and so all must support each other in order that the whole can be preserved.

(Nature) established fairness and justice; according to her ruling, it is

more wretched to commit than to suffer injury. Through her orders, let
our hands be ready for all that needs to be helped . . . . Let us possess
things in common; for birth is ours in common. Our relations with one
another are like a stone arch, which would collapse if the stones did not
mutually support each other, and which is upheld in this very way. (Ep.

Even in De Clementia, when Seneca describes the relationship of the people to

Nero, their head, he indicates that although the people are willing to sacrifice
themselves on Nero’s behalf, they ultimately do this because they see this as
preserving themselves.

It is, therefore, their own safety that men love, when for one man they
lead ten legions at a time into battle, when they rush to the forefront and
expose their breasts to wounds that they may save the standards of their
emperor from defeat. For he is the bond by which the commonwealth is
united, the breath of life [spiritus vitalis] which these many thousands
draw, who in their own strength would be only a burden to themselves
and the prey of others if the great mind of the empire should be with-
drawn. (Clem. 1.4.1)

Seneca explains the people’s intense loyalty as a result of their realization that
in protecting the emperor they are protecting their own interests. Such devo-
tion is not unreasonable because they are dependent on him for their survival.
On the other hand, in other places Seneca criticizes acting purely out of
self-interest. It is a “contemptible act,” says Seneca,

without praise and without glory, to do anyone a service because it is

to our own interest. What nobleness is there in loving oneself, in spar-
ing oneself, in getting gain for oneself? The true desire of giving a bene-
fit summons us away from all these motives, and, laying hand upon us,
forces us to put up with loss, and, forgoing self-interest [utilitates], finds
its greatest joy in the mere act of doing good. (Ben. 4.14.3-4)23

23 As cited in David E. Briones, Paul’s Financial Policy: A Socio-Theological Approach (LNTS

494; London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2013), 45.
244 Lee-Barnewall

Rather, the ideal is to act on behalf of another over self-interest: “A benefit

. . . possesses this commendable, this most praiseworthy, quality, that a man
forgets for the time being his own interest in order that he may give help
to another” (Ben. 5.11.4-5).24 For Seneca, such actions are a matter of virtue
and an imitation of the gods, who act without consideration of their own